Judicious Bribes


One thing that’s not evident in the video: I bribed Biggie. He was begging for something to do, and I had just dumped a bunch of blocks in JB’s space (courtesy of the Kindergarten closet, thank you ladies so much!). So I had given him a prior challenge to make a structure as tall as himself—doing so would earn him a Slurpee from 7-11. He was unable to complete this first challenge—and was kicking mad about it—so I promised to give him a more manageable challenge the next day.

As you can see in the video, the challenge was to create a domino show with a limited number of domino tiles. This was not an easy challenge for Biggie. It required patience and concentration, and there were several times when the tiles fell over that Biggie splashed the set across the room.

This is where the bribe came in handy—but I don’t like bribes, grades, or prizes in the main.

I’m familiar with the research that seems to generally show that the expectation of and dependence on extrinsic rewards eventually results in some serious blowback against short-term gains. Extrinsic validation undercuts intrinsic motivation and confuses the issue of value. A system of punishment and rewards based on simple measures of merit is legalism, plain and simple. We should not learn that life is but a game.

And yet we can use games and shows to rehearse life. One thing I’ve come to understand is that while actual progress itself is ultimately mystical, the lived experience of reaching for it is desperately practical. We bow our heads to divine love, grace, and redemption, but we then try every trick and tack to scramble to the next ledge.

Within this context, the bribe can be okay, I think. The dangling Slurpee helped Biggie stay in the game and nudged his willpower to power through the bumps. I didn’t make a big deal of it; I just said that he didn’t have to complete the challenge right away, that he could always come back to it, and that the deal would readily stand. It was enough to get him to pick up the tiles and try once more, even though he didn’t feel like it. And as he tried again, he noticed his coordination and speed had improved… and that heartened him to try again a few more times.

By the time he was done, he was proud of himself. Just look at the smile he gave at the end:

domino challenge 1

It wasn’t about the Slurpee anymore. In fact, after he made me show the video to his sister and his mom, he went back and made another domino show:

domino challenge

I think this is a good start to… something. Stay tuned.



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