Building Our Children’s Willpower

You’re an honest person, right? You’d never take something that doesn’t belong to you, correct? We can trust you, I can tell.” These are the words that accompanied the end of a fictitious “job interview” set up by a popular television show. The show was attempting to replicate a social sciences experiment that demonstrates how people are far less moral than they believe themselves to be.

The show set up fake jobs alphabetizing and filing information, and then placed platter after platter of beautifully cut-up fruit, savory cold cuts, tempting chocolates, delicious candies, and luscious cookies in each office. They warned the “office worker” not to touch the platters and then left the room.

Unbeknownst to the “workers,” there were hidden video cameras placed strategically around each room. You could see the internal struggle on their faces as they first diligently filed, then strolled over to look at the platters, then went back to filing. Then they’d notice one grape that had fallen below the platter, or a chocolate that toppled off the large pyramid, or a cookie that wasn’t symmetrically placed. Slowly but surely, each “worker” ate that extra grape or toppling chocolate.

Then it was like a dam burst. They’d work for a while, then grab a grape. Work for a while, eat a chocolate or grab a candy. Most of the workers were careful not to disturb the arrangement, and only took food that seemed to be falling off or wouldn’t be missed in the pattern. One woman just stood there and unashamedly ate, either not noticing or not caring that her pilfering was obvious. But most were careful to cover their tracks.

One woman’s response was fascinating. She diligently kept filing and working, never so much as glancing at the food. When her time was up and the deception was revealed, the host of the show asked her, “LaToya, how did you know that there were hidden cameras and that this was a hoax?” Her response was telling. “Don’t need no cameras not to steal. That’s the word of the L-rd right there. You think He don’t know everything you do? You think He not watchin’ you right now? I tell my kids what my mama told me — you do what’s right, because the L-rd, He’s ALWAYS watching.”

I watched this very unscientific experiment as part of a class on the ethics of deception in human research. Is it okay to trick people like this? While I firmly believe it is not, and it is particularly not okay to humiliate people on national TV, watching it was truly an educational experience.

I’d love to say that it was LaToya’s religious upbringing that allowed her to make the moral choice. Unfortunately, though, we hear many stories of frum Yidden who don’t have LaToya’s sense of being constantly watched by Hashem, and do succumb to temptations of all sorts.

And it isn’t about knowing right from wrong — all of the people in the “experiment” knew that taking food without permission is wrong. They were all asked if they consider themselves honest and trustworthy, and they all said that they were. Yet somehow, the values they claimed to have didn’t actually show up in their behavior. How can we make sure that our children’s knowledge of right from wrong translates into their actual behavior?

The answer lies more in how LaToya was trained and taught by her mother. We don’t really know, but we can guess that LaToya was raised in a home where there were clear standards for behavior, and behavior that was appropriate was rewarded and praised, and behavior that was inappropriate was punished. I’m willing to bet that her mother went beyond just simple reward and punishment, but also taught about moral choices as building character. It’s not so much that you’re doing the right thing to please Mama and get rewarded and praised, and you’re avoiding the wrong thing so that you don’t get punished, it’s that you’re practicing to be a moral, upstanding adult.


Understanding Rewards

In my Targeted Parenting classes, I teach parents to use a behavioral approach towards changing a child’s behavior. The classic description of a behavioral approach is “behavior that is rewarded is repeated.”


Rewards Are Not Bribes

Very often, parents resist reward-based parenting systems because they don’t want to reward behavior that is expected. Sometimes this is framed as a moral argument — “Why should I bribe my child to listen to me? That’s what he’s supposed to do.” Well, yes. And adults are supposed to show up at work, but if they don’t get a paycheck for doing so, they probably won’t show up.

Rewards are not bribes. A bribe purchases a one-time action. It doesn’t teach any skills or train the brain in more effective habits and self-regulation. Let’s consider the example of bribing a judge to decide that a defendant is not guilty. When someone bribes a judge, he is buying a one-time favorable decision. The judge’s brain and skill set don’t change. If you need the judge to decide in your favor again, you need to buy another decision with another bribe.

A reward, on the other hand, comes after a behavior, and exists to reinforce that behavior. We eat chocolate because we are rewarded for doing so by the creamy deliciousness of each bite. We keep eating chocolate because behavior that is rewarded is repeated.

The Rambam says in Hilchos Teshuvah that we are supposed to give our children incentives to do the correct thing. He talks about giving small children nuts in order to reward proper behavior. We all know “(She)mitoch shelo lishma, ba lishma.” The child starts out sharing or studying or davening just to get those nuts, Hello Kitty stickers, or erasers, and then eventually transitions into doing what he’s supposed to do for the sake of Hashem.

We can’t avoid step one. Rewarding a behavior creates the ability to have self-control. When we set up a behavior contest, we are asking a child to remain goal-directed — to think about what he is trying to really earn. We are also training the child to tolerate some discomfort in service of his goal.

Let’s say we have a homework contest. The child is supposed to do his homework as soon as he comes home from school. We set up the plan — Moishy will start his homework within ten minutes of getting off the bus. Moishy gets off the bus. He’d rather do anything than homework. He’s got his Lego to play with, his cute baby brother to tickle, a new Binah Bunch to read… there are so many things Moishy could be doing with his time.

He remembers his contest. He knows that he will get a sticker each time he starts his homework within ten minutes (without Mommy reminding him!) and that when he gets ten stickers, he’s going to get that Lego set he’s been waiting for. Moishy would much rather run upstairs and read, but instead, he tolerates that discomfort, thinks about how much he wants that Lego set, and does the homework instead.

Do you see what amazing habits are being created in Moishy’s brain? As Moishy continues to do this, he is practicing self-control. Moishy struggles each day with the temptation to just go and play, but then remembers — I have a contest! I have a goal! I can tolerate the discomfort involved in waiting to play with my Lego and do my homework first!

Each one of these mini-struggles is another reinforcement of Moishy’s mental willpower muscle. Without the initial motivation of the reward — without that little thought of “This is worth it — I’m getting the Lego set I’ve been waiting for!” —Moishy would never be able to build his capacity for self-control.

The constant practicing of self-control is ultimately what will teach Moishy how to exercise this muscle in other areas of life. Once he’s learned this crucial lesson — “I can delay gratification! I can exercise self-control! — he can move forward in many ways.

Setting up behavioral systems so that they are not just about the reward and the consequence is one of the major learning objectives of all the Targeted Parenting classes. If we are just going to set up a behavioral system, that’s not really going to be transformative. We have to set up a behavioral system and make sure our kids learn the correct lesson from the system.

We have to talk to our children about their self-control skills, help them see that they are exercising this precious willpower muscle that will take them far in life. Step two, therefore, is making sure children learn the proper lessons from the behavioral approach, so that it doesn’t remain stuck on behavior, but becomes part of their personality.


Why Tie Rewards To Behavior? That Seems So Mean

Rewarding children without making the rewards contingent on positive behavior is a waste of an educational opportunity. It also trains the brain to have an unsustainable expectation. Little is free in life. We don’t “get” an A or an F. We earn our grades. The world works on a reward-based system. If our children have the expectation of being handed things on a silver platter, without having to work for them, they are going to have a very difficult adjustment to adulthood.

Remember the need to train the brain in positive habits? If we train the brain with expectations that rewards will come, no matter what, we are crippling that brain. There is a psychological syndrome nicknamed “Affluenza,” which is controversial. Basically, proponents of the “Affluenza” theory suggest that children who are given rewards and never expected to earn anything don’t develop a moral sense or the ability to make appropriate decisions.

In February of 2014, a judge in Texas ruled that wealthy, spoiled Ethan Couch, a sixteen-year-old drunk driver who killed four people, could not be held accountable for his actions. This suggests that the judge was provided with enough convincing scientific evidence that being raised with no expectations actually creates a disabling condition.

This diagnosis is highly controversial, and I’m not convinced “Affluenza” exists. Even if it does exist, I’m not convinced it is a good enough reason to let the murderer of four people escape jail. However, there is compelling evidence that raising a child with no expectations does indeed cripple his moral sense and judgment. Part of creating expectations is creating contingencies — if you do Positive Behavior X, you get Positive Reward Y. If you don’t do Positive Behavior X, the consequence is Undesirable Consequence Y.


Prize Or Pride?

The Rambam goes on to say that behaving properly simply because we want an incentive and/or want to avoid punishment is for children or for very simple people. Eventually, we want to transition away from this, and toward an intrinsic sense of right and wrong.

The learning principles by which we can foster this in our children is by tying their behavioral achievements to a larger sense of self. When that child wins that Lego set, make sure to explain that this isn’t just a regular set of Lego: “This is a really special set of Lego. This is a set of Lego that was earned by tolerating discomfort in service of a goal. Every time you play with this Lego set, I want you to think about how hard you worked for it. I want you to remember what it felt like to control yourself. I want you to remember how proud you feel right now. Every time you play with it, I want you to re-experience that feeling of pride. Every time you look at it, think ‘I’m someone who can control himself. When I grow up, I’ll be able to use that skill.'”

You want to foster the sense that your child is someone who can discipline himself, and to cement that as part of his identity.