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Tue, Apr 29, 2014
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Bribe or reward?
by Eve Yap

Aircraft handler Mahmood Ahmad and his housewife spouse know that when they return from breakfast on Saturday and Sunday mornings, their home will be spick and span.

Their youngest child, Mujahid, would have swept, mopped and tidied their five-room HDB flat in Tampines. It is the 13-year-old's turn to do so - and he does it without getting any reward.

The couple's three older children - a 19-year-old son who is in national service and two married daughters living on their own - were similarly trained.

Mr Mahmood, 57, says: "There's no such thing as giving him $10 to wash his clothes, iron them or wash the dishes after dinner. He's supposed to do it for a sense of family togetherness."

Should parents reward their children for good behaviour, whether it is doing household chores or finishing homework?

Mr Arthur Ling, deputy director of Fei Yue Community Services, feels parents will not spoil their children with rewards, provided the family has a good relationship to begin with and if parents explain the reason for the reward. He says: "Otherwise, the reward is just an external transaction - the children don't learn any values."

In his home, he and his 44-year-old counsellor wife expect their three children - aged 11, 10 and four - to pray every morning and evening, memorise a Bible verse a week, and complete school work, practise piano for 10 minutes and read a book daily. This is to "instil faithfulness and build good habits", he says.

He has a chart hung on the wall of the living room in their five-room flat in northern Singapore. The kids tick against each completed task. A month's worth of ticks gets them $10 worth of items from Popular bookstore.

But he makes the distinction between an advance reward - bribery - and one given after the child complies. "Giving the reward first does not make sense because the motivation to get the child towards a desired value, through a desired behaviour, is lost."

Child development expert and principal of Leap SchoolHouse, Ms Esther Yeo, says offering something to correct a misbehaving child is a bribe. "For example, a child is throwing a fit in the mall because you refuse to buy him that toy. To save yourself embarrassment, you buy that toy," says Ms Yeo.

But giving "positive reinforcement" for good behaviour is an incentive. She explains: "For example, you tell the child to stop throwing a fit and if he does so, you will consider buying him that toy."

Experts say there is no need to draw the line between an incentive and a reward.

Freelance editor Kelly Pang, 42, is clear that an incentive is something "desirable" her two children - See Shuen Ning, 13, and Shuen Yin, 10 - want and she offers it to them if they meet an expectation.

For example, in the past, she asked them to set targets for their school examinations and promised, say, stationery items or stickers if they met the goals, says the co-editor of Muddlehood: What Not To Expect When You Are Expecting.

Sometimes, though, she may give them an item or treat without them knowing about it beforehand. For instance, her elder daughter recently "did better than expected in a test in one of her weakest subjects". Mum bought fruit tarts for dessert, which she knew the girl would like. "I wanted to encourage her and show her that we share in her small achievements," says Ms Pang.

But she draws the line at any form of perks when the girls chip in to wash their own dishes or tidy their room in the family's private apartment in Serangoon. "It's their responsibility to themselves and to the family. Doing the chores should not be viewed as a favour to their parents," says Ms Pang. "My thanks are their reward."

Ms Haryani Habib (centre), 40, an executive in a securities trading firm, also makes a slight distinction between reward and incentive.

"To me, incentive involves money. A reward is something a child likes," says Ms Haryani.

Both her children - Muhammad Izyan Jaizi (left), 18, and Putri Iryannie Mohd Kamil (right), 10 - are expected to do their own laundry and ironing, for instance. The older brother must also help his sister with homework and accompany her on a 10-minute bus ride home from a student care centre near their five-room HDB flat in Jurong West, usually thrice a week.

For these efforts, mum rewards him with $50 or so a month. The most handsome reward was a one-off $500 he received two months ago for his birthday and for scoring 11 points at the O levels two years ago.

The former Jurong Secondary School student used that and savings from school holiday jobs to go on a 10-day trip to London with his cousin last month.

"But if they don't do these things, they don't get a single cent or reward. I'm a very strict mum - I don't cave in," says Ms Haryani.

Her own humble background - she worked at a factory in the afternoons after school in her teens, studied accounting after her O levels and worked as a teller in a bank from 19 - forms the basis of this no-nonsense reward system. She says: "We can afford to give them some luxuries but we don't want to - we want them to suffer a bit."

Her son does not think mum's expectations are a burden. "It's my responsibility to help out and make my mother happy, even if there are no incentives. But the extra money is like a bonus," says Muhammad Izyan, now a Singapore Polytechnic student, who has used his income from incentives to buy two guitars and a pair of rugby shoes, worth about $700 in all.

In her family, stay-at-home mum Prerna Gole uses perks to teach the value of money and a sense of personal achievement to older child Diva, nine, and responsibility to her three-year-old son, Adiv.

Diva, a Primary 3 pupil at Tanjong Katong Primary School, must score at least 85 per cent for each of her subjects before she gets another pencil box, a pair of shoes or a movie date with mum. "I want to teach her that things are rightfully earned. They don't just fall into your lap," says Mrs Gole.

Diva tries to negotiate for lower marks, but mum does not budge. "It's to give her a sense of exhilaration that she can achieve something if she pushes herself a little more," adds Mrs Gole.

Little Adiv, meanwhile, is thrilled by promises to go to the pool if he remembers to not eat in his room, for instance.

Adds his mum with a laugh: "We pretty much go to the pool on sunny days, but I use it as an excuse to get him to behave."

Whatever the motivation, keep the system simple, says Ms Woo Li Fong, 42, a product development manager at an enrichment company. She ran a complex "token economy" two years ago when her son Lim Yu Hern was five and her daughter Lim Yu Hann was six.

She says: "There was a range of rewards - storybooks, pencils or visits to an indoor playground - which they could redeem if they brushed their teeth every day for three months or did their English or Chinese writing daily."

So one day of brushing teeth earns a sticker and 10 stickers meant a pencil, for instance. Stickers were pasted in a notebook and reviewed weekly.

But the system unravelled when her older child went to Primary 1. "It was just too hard to keep track of the system and schoolwork," says mum.

She now keeps her system simple: Verbal reminders that they are to complete five pages of assessment books for 10 minutes of iPad games. If the kids bargain for more gaming time, she accedes after they write two paragraphs of composition.

Ms Woo says: "I let them feel they are in control."

This article was published on April 27 in The Straits Times.

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