In some ways, I feel like my mother’s philosophy of raising children can be distilled into two of her favorite expressions. The first one is this:
Only boring people get bored.
This was not so much an expression as it was a response to the “I’m booorrred” cries from my brother, sister, or me when we’d be driving somewhere or if, God forbid, there was no formal activity scheduled for a stretch of hours when Rocky III was not playing on HBO. The idea was that we should be resourceful enough to entertain ourselves at all times. You can only imagine how annoying this phrase was to a 10- year-old who had an entire shelf of lock-and-key diaries, the contents of which proved she was anything but boring. But apparently, the line was not annoying enough to have stopped me from using it at least once a week in my own house with my own kids 25 years later. Not only do I love this expression — I have embraced it as my worldview.
The other expression from Mom is:
Virtue is its own reward.
I probably don’t have to explain this one, but to put it in terms any parent can understand it means: If your kid comes in first place in the Third Grade Challenge Run, you should feel no need to reward her with an ice cream sundae or an iTouch. The accomplishment itself is the reward. Feeling pride in that accomplishment is what builds self-esteem and motivates a kid. No material acknowledgment should be necessary.
We’re not so great at embracing this concept. I like to think it’s because of my propensity for celebration (and not my weakness for indulging) that I enjoy marking moments and accomplishments with rewards — material and otherwise. This is why the girls sometimes get a gift on the first or last day of school. And why I usually end up promising Abby a double scoop of mint chip or a Littlest Pet Shop Mermaid if she is brave getting her shots at the doctor. And it’s also why I’ve started a Summer Book Club that rewards their reading with trips to the soccer shop or the toy store. By toy store, I do not mean FAO Schwartz — I mean the local stationery store that sells the mini composition notebook that Phoebe covets; or eBay, where Abby can always find a piece of dollhouse furniture for under $5 including shipping. It’s scary how well this strategy works. As soon as I drew up two separate summer readings lists (with checklists) and handed them over, Abby was curled up with the dog on the couch reading Amulet (10 points) and Phoebe was asking why the library has to be closed on the Fourth of July.
The system is simple: Anything they read — whether it’s a chapter book, a comic book, or even an article in Spider — will earn them a specific number of points, and once they’ve amassed enough points they are eligible to collect prizes. Fifteen points earns them a pack of stickers or a notebook. Thirty is a sleepover in our bedroom even on nights we say No way, not tonight. Eighty is a trip to Playland or the Bronx Zoo. The grand prize — 180 points — is dinner out an a restaurant of their choice.
Is this bribery? Definitely. Would my Mom approve? Probably not. But at least no one is pleading boredom.
Half the fun: Decorating their folders.
I stacked all the summer reading selections we owned in one place so they’d be easily accessible.
Day 1: Phoebe has already amassed 20 points and is eligible for a trip to the stationery store.
And here’s where she brings it around to dinner!
From Dinner a Love Story