Improvising Fatherhood

A blog about the comedy of being a dad.

In our house we work hard to promote good behavior through positive reinforcements (like giving treats to a dog after it does a trick) more often than through negative reinforcements (like saying, “NO. Bad Dog” and whapping it on the nose with a rolled up newspaper). Some time last year I came up with a new system which we now call “House Points”. And similar to the points system at Hogwarts, we award the kids points when they exhibit good behavior. But there’s more. Each point is worth a penny, and they can save up their points and use them to buy virtually anything they want (within reason).

OK, I know what you’re thinking. “Aren’t you just bribing your kids to be good?”

Yes. Yes I am.

But let me explain how this system evolved. It started at a time when the boys were having a particularly hard time getting along. Every interaction ended in an argument. We were growing weary of scolding them for this behavior and looking instead for a way to reward them when they demonstrated good behavior. So I came up with what I called, “Good Brother Points”.

Any time I saw one of them being kind to the other one, or unselfish with the other one, or doing a good job of listening to the other one, I gave them some points. And when one of them made a poor choice I would say something like, “That was an opportunity to earn some Good Brother Points by using your words to ask for that toy rather than just taking it out of your brother’s hands.” They never lose points. They are just made aware of when they missed an opportunity to earn points.

The system worked OK at first, much like getting sticker rewards in the classroom. But the novelty of earning “points” was wearing off. That’s when I brought money into the picture. Usually, if I have any loose change in my pockets at the end of the day, I will find random spots around the house to leave them like the Easter Bunny leaving eggs. If the kids find the coins, they get to keep them.

One day I decided to use the change with the Good Brother Points. At the end of the day I went to Chandler’s room. “Chandler, you earned 15 Good Brother Points today. You made a lot of good choices with your brother. I’m proud of you.” I gave him the coins and his eyes lit up.

Now you might say, “You shouldn’t have to PAY your kids to be good.” And yeah, you make a good point. But what I was really doing was paying them to build up the habit of always thinking about how they can be unselfish and kind to others. I could just lecture them and give them time outs and other punishments for their selfish behavior. But that doesn’t give them incentive to be unselfish. It just gives them incentive to not get caught being selfish.

Eventually we expanded the concept from “Good Brother Points” to “Good Citizen Points”. Now they could earn points for anything they did to help out around the house or to help another person. If they take their plates from the dinner table to the kitchen sink on their own, that earns them some points. If they show gratitude for something without being prompted by a parent, that’s points. And the truth is, it has been working. With gentle daily reminders, they are on the lookout for opportunities to earn points by being kind and unselfish. Slowly but surely, they are making unselfish thinking a habit.

Now let’s talk about the money. My wife and I keep a shared note where we basically have a ledger for their House Points (Good Citizen Points were rebranded as House Points because…HARRY POTTER). Basically, it’s like a bank account for the kids. We also add in any birthday/holiday money they get from relatives. Then, whenever we are at a store somewhere and inevitably one of them says, “Can I get that?” We say, “Let’s check your House Points and see if you have enough.” If they have enough, we let them get it (within reason). If they don’t have enough, we let them know they’ll have to keep saving up for it. No argument. If you have it, you can spend it.

I like this because it is teaching them to think about the value of things. Our little one is Spendy McSpender. He wants to buy everything he sees. We try to help him think through his impulse purchases so that he doesn’t have buyer’s remorse, but ultimately that’s a lesson he needs to learn on his own.

The older kid is our little Scrooge McDuck. Over the course of a few birthdays and holidays he has saved up over $400. We’re actually encouraging him to put his money to good use and not just hoard it forever. I pray he never comes asking for it all at once. “Sorry Chandler…our money isn’t exactly liquid at the moment.”

So that’s the House Points system. There are still plenty of times when we resort to punishments and consequences or just straight up using our “outside voices” with them. But this system gives us a way to encourage them on a daily basis to think about helping others. And as a result, I’ve seen them do kind and unselfish acts without expecting to be rewarded. Hopefully a day will come when we won’t need the House Points system and they’ll forget all about the hundreds of dollars I owe them.

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