LIFE WITHOUT THE POINT SYSTEM
As a behaviorist, I believed strongly in
the benefits of a point system where a child
learns the value of working for his rewards
and losing them if he does not work or misbehaves.
I started my son on a point system when he
was three years old. But let me pre-empt
right off the bat the usual comments about
"You are so rigid, controlling",
"You treat children like robots.",
or worse, "slaves.", whenever a
point system is used on a child. To the contrary,
my point system was by no means stringent
or rigid. I simply picked his favorite snacks
and toys as the rewards but carefully defined
the mastery of violin passages or portions
of his school work as the tasks he should
perform to earn the rewards. Everything else
was 'free', and since he has been home-schooled,
he was allowed to exercise the privileges
any day and any time he wanted, provided
that he had earned enough points. So he was
probably the only kid that could eat his
favorite snack, or play with his toys, at
10 a.m., or 1 p.m. or 9 p.m., any day of
the week. (This was provided that I was with
him at the time of course.) He has developed
into a quite established violinist.
As he grew older, his reward system changed. Gone were trinkets, trains, cars or Lego. In came electronic games like Mario, Game Boy, then Angry Bird. Snacks were no longer important to him. The points were then used mainly for play time on electronics. By then, he was fully ingrained with the idea that he had to work for his privileges. And he 'shaped up' as soon as he was fined with the points or even with a warning of a fine.
Yet no matter how 'free' my point system was in terms of ease of earning the rewards and flexibility of exercising the reward, and no matter how used to it David had become over the course of eight years, there is something inherently aversive, or shall we say artificial for him to have this point system. One obvious discomfort I suspect was that none of his friends or peers we know of had a point system. So last year, he tactfully asked if he could be off it, and promised (they all do) that he would work just as hard without it. With a slight grudge, actually more like a disappointment, I agreed, figuring eight years were enough.
So how has it been sans points for nine months now? David has continued to practice the violin, a very tedious and mundane activity, and to read and write about the academic subjects assigned to him, another unpleasant task for him (and for most students, especially boys). Although he has realized the value of hard work and achievement, the allure of electronic games proves potent. I find myself having to nag, prompt, coax, set time limit to play video games or threaten to withdraw video game play to get him to practice or do school work. I also find myself having to be vigilant about the quantity and quality of his practice and school learning. Under no points needed to be earned, my son tends to find reasons (excuses) to quit sooner than he should, thinking the alternative to working would be playing video games. I naturally prevent him from such pre-mature quitting and use the contingency of videogames to motivate him to persist some more on violin practice or school work.
In short, David now feels more 'normal' not to have to 'officially' work for his favorite activities. Not officially I mean there is still a general contingency of work then play. Videogames are not available on demand but are so after he has achieved a certain standard in violin practice or school work. The point system through eight years of systematic/consistent administration linking work with reward did instill in him that he must study hard and practice well, no matter how tedious these activities appear. Instead of using the points as a means to play videogame, the contingency has become more fluid and impromptu. ("Practice till page 2 without making more than three errors then you can play videogame for 45 minutes.", "Finish one lesson of History and writing this essay outline then you can play videogame the rest of the evening.") David still understands and accepts, at age 12, at least on a verbal level, that diligent violin practice will allow him to fulfill his desire to be a concert violinist, and also doing good school work is beneficial to him.
On the other hand, as a parent, his violin coach and his home school teacher, without the support of a point system, I found myself resorting to nagging him to stop playing videogame and start working, coaxing him not to quit the violin practice too early. His ADHD symptoms reappear! He is less focused and attentive when he works (i.e., sloppy), and I have to remind him a lot more on things I just taught him because he either did not pay attention or he forgot. How my son is going to develop as a violinist and as a student is a work in progress.