There was a dog food disaster in the kitchen. Ollie dumped out the dogs’ dinner all over the kitchen floor. The mess was everywhere. Archie, a boy who appreciates tidiness, clucked his disapproval and told me he would fetch the broom. He took it one step further though. I thought he was going to bring the broom to me. Instead, he crisply told me he would take care of the situation. He reached under the table, into the corners, along the bottom cabinets and got every last petrified meaty kernal gathered into a pile. Then, he swept everything into the dustpan. Archie did a remarkable job.
I said thank you and told him what a great job he did.
“I know! What’s my reward?”
“Uh. Nothing? I’m glad you helped and am proud you did such a good job.”
“So, you’re saying I don’t get a reward?”
“No reward. Did you do it just to get a reward?”
He nodded. “I thought you’d give me something.”
“Sometimes, people do things just because they have kind hearts and know they are helping others. That makes them feel good, which is a reward, right?”
He looked really skeptical, so I decided to try to twist it back to a recent example where someone helped him. “Do you remember when Sam helped you with your homework? Did you give him a reward or tell him thank you? He did it because he loves you.”
Archie’s face lit up. I thought I had made a breakthrough as I watched him run into the kitchen and stop in front of the refrigerator. “Sam!’ he shouted. ‘What is your favorite kind of ice cream?” Sam, who was sitting at the computer doing homework in the next room looked confused. “Vanilla?”
I asked Archie if he was rewarding his brother with ice cream, right before dinner, without asking. “Yep.”
“Sam can’t have ice cream now! Giving him something that isn’t your right to give or doesn’t belong to you is not a reward. All you have to do is tell him thank you!”
“Ugh. Okay.” Archie closed the freezer door but brightened immediately.
“I’ll give him Aidan’s Rainbow Twizzlers! Sam! What’s your favorite color?”
It was getting worse, careening away from the tender, noble lesson I thought I had stumbled upon. Parenting experts claim the best chances to teach your children are often small, unexpected moment—like a dog food explosion and subsequent cleanup. I guess maybe Archie did learn a lesson? Hand the broom to mommy. I’ll sweep and thank myself later with a bowl of chocolate.