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Incentives Or Bribes (Part II)


Dear Rabbi Horowitz:

We would appreciate your thoughts regarding offering our children incentives, financial or otherwise, for doing well in school this year.

We don’t want to bribe our kids but, on the other hand, incentives seem to work very well.

What do you think?

Yaakov and Susan

Dear Yaakov and Susan:

There are portions in the 10th perek of the Rambam’s Hilchos Teshuvah that ought to be required reading for every parent and educator, as they clearly and succinctly lay out a vision of setting long- and short-term goals for our children’s chinuch. (I encourage all readers to study these portions in the original text of the Rambam. It can be found in the first volume of the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, Maddah section.)

The Rambam (10:1) opens by noting that the service of Hashem should be done lishmah (literally, for His sake/name), meaning that one should do so altruistically. After all, one who performs mitzvos in hopes of being rewarded and refrains from sin for fear of being punished is certainly operating on a far lower level than one who does so as a result of his love for Hashem. In fact, the Rambam points out that this service is, “not the way of wise men,” and should be reserved for, “simple and unlearned folk.”

Having said that, he notes later in that perek (10:5) that it is perfectly appropriate for one to start at the lower level of doing things for reward, as doing so will eventually result in reaching the more elevated plateau of doing what is right with no expectation of a “payback.” The Rambam then (ibid.) used phraseology that has worked its way into our lexicon, “[sh'e]mitoch shelo lishmah, bah lishmah” (doing mitzvos for extrinsic motivation will eventually lead to things being done for the sake of Hashem).

The next portion of this halacha is not as well known, though it ought to be. The Rambam continues (ibid.) by stating that when teaching young children, one should only do so on the lower, extrinsic level, until their wisdom broadens (and they can then appreciate the exalted level of serving Hashem strictly out of love and appreciation for Him].

The language that the Rambam uses to convey this theme is simply fascinating. He says that once the children begin to grow in their understanding of Hashem, “megalin lahem roz zeh ela me’at me’at b’nachas ad she’yasiguhu v’yedouhu v’yavduhu me’ahavah” (we reveal this secret slowly, in stages, a little bit at a time, until they understand and get to know Him, [and at such time they will be prepared to] serve him out of love).

The roz (secret) the Rambam refers to is that their current service to Hashem is merely a pale shadow of the elevated lishmah level that one should strive to achieve later in life. Worded differently, it means that while they are in “phase 1,” we should not degrade their current efforts as being substandard – even though in the scheme of things it is far from perfect. Rather, we are better served waiting until they become more proficient at doing mitzvos (for reward), and only then gradually inform them that there is a much greater hill to climb.

The Rambam does not give a lengthy explanation for his suggestions. But the more you think about it, the more logical it becomes. After all, there are few things more detrimental to a child’s spiritual development than to set expectations that are unrealistic and age-inappropriate. That inevitably results in frustrated parents who exude negative energy when their children act like, well, children.

Truth be told, we as adults often do things she’lo lishmah. Why should we expect our kids to act differently? One of my rebbeim used to ask us to imagine how differently things would be if we said our pre-bedtime krias shema in shul and made the brachah on our esrog and lulav in our bedrooms. And while he was encouraging us to concentrate more on the privately-said prayers, the fact remains that human nature is such that we all appreciate compliments, attention and she’lo lishmah motivation.

It is important to keep in mind that rewards and incentives need not be financial in nature. For your children, your time and attention is often a far more valuable commodity than money. In fact, a friend of mine offers an hour of his time as an incentive program for his kids. Each child who earns a number of points over weeks or months for attention to schoolwork/homework, or for completing chores at home, gets an hour to spend with him. And he/she gets to decide how that time will be spent.

On a very practical level, it is often a good idea to make charts with younger children, where they earn points for good behavior, getting along with their siblings, etc. Set categories that clearly delineate what it is that you want from them, and perhaps even get them to self-evaluate when you “grade” them. Here’s an example: “Avi, on a scale of 1-10, how do you think you played with your brothers and sisters over the weekend?”

Another great thing about making charts is that it allows you to discipline your child for poor behavior by deducting points – rather than through “punishment.” Sorry if I sound like a broken record (remember those?), but please stick to the golden path of moderation with this. Keep in mind that anything that is overdone usually backfires.

Finally, don’t frame these incentives as bribes. A bribe is when you pay or reward someone for things that should not be done (such as telling a police officer, “Here is $200; please don’t give me a speeding ticket”). An incentive assists or recognizes someone for doing the right thing. There is an important distinction between the two, and you ought to frame things like that to your children. We are rewarding you, you should say, not paying or bribing you.

About the Author: Rabbi Yakov Horowitz is founder and dean of Yeshiva Darchei Noam and founder and director of Agudath Israel's Project Y.E.S.


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