Sometimes, Bribing Your Kids Just Works – Kveller
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Sometimes, Bribing Your Kids Just Works

Hello and welcome to another exciting episode of: Alina Tries to Make Her Kids Speak Russian. (To learn why I want them to speak Russian, read my previous post here.)

I thought I’d found the answer when I discovered JAR-Ptitsa: Judaism Through the Arts (the J.A.R. stands for Jewish American Russian and the word jarptitsa in Russian means firebird; clever, no?). All three of my kids are very artistically oriented, so I figured this was perfect! They’ll do the stuff they love, they’ll speak Russian, they’ll meet other kids who also speak Russian, and they’ll even learn about Judaism along the way. What could be better? How could this fail?

I’ll tell you how. 

JAR-Ptitsa has a children’s chorus. The children’s chorus was scheduled to perform at a Three Sopranos concert of Russian-Jewish music. My kids love to perform, so I went ahead and signed them up.

Before asking whether or not they wanted to.

I really thought they’d want to.

It turns out that they did not.

The older one got off easiest. The chorus is for kids ages 6-12, and he is 13.

The younger two, however, I begged and cajoled into at least coming to one rehearsal. And then I told them they had to come to at least one rehearsal. Because I said so.

They came to one rehearsal. They had, as I suspected all along, a great time. In fact, during one song–to be performed in Russian and Hebrew–my happy-footed 9-year-old son couldn’t contain himself and burst into a modified version of a Russian presyadka (a.k.a. That Dance Where They Cross Their Arms and Sit Down Really Low While Kicking Their Feet Out).

“That’s wonderful!” the cantor running the rehearsal exclaimed. “Could you do it just like that at the concert?”

“No,” my son said.

I took him aside to try and reason with him. I reminded him that he loved to dance on stage. I reminded him that, six months ago, he’d appeared with the American Ballet Theatre’s production of Giselle at the Metropolitan Opera House. “What’s the matter?” I wanted to know. “You only play the big rooms now?”

“I don’t want to,” my son said.

Hearing that refusal was suddenly an option, my daughter joined in, “I don’t want to, either.”

At which point I did what any educated, caring mother who’d read her weight in child development books would do: I bribed them.

I promised them an indeterminate “treat” (within reason; ponies, their oh, so helpful big brother’s suggestion, were off the table) in exchange for rehearsing and performing at the concert.

So they rehearsed.

And they performed.

My son, as I expected, brought the house down with his dance. Afterwards, people kept telling him how great he was while he grinned ear to ear.

My daughter also enjoyed the experience. If only because of all the outfits she got to try on in anticipation, and how pretty she looked in the one she finally picked.

The whole family came to watch them and even a friend from school. It ended up being a wonderful afternoon all the way around.

The next day, we came upon a young boy on the street selling candy for his (multicultural alert: Catholic) school. Now, honestly, I’m a sucker for any little kid gathering up his courage and hawking his wares to total strangers. But now, I was able to turn it into a teaching moment as I told the kids, “I said you could have a treat for performing. Go ahead and pick whatever you like.”

I’m not sure if the expressions of shock on my children’s faces came from the fact that I so rarely let them have candy or because they’d had so much fun at the concert they’d completely forgotten they were doing it under duress… or for a reward.

This, of course, did not stop them for scarfing down their candy.

And there was another interesting side-effect to the experience: The song that my kids had to be bribed into performing, they now constantly sing around the house. In Russian and in Hebrew. My son even used the sheet music they’d been given to teach himself how to play it on his recorder.

I know that current parenting philosophy dictates reason over bribery, and insists that children’s opinions should be given equal weight with adults as a sign of respect for their agency and in the interest of cultivating strong self-esteem.

Here’s the thing, though: My child’s opinion is not worth the same as mine. I know more than they do and, more often than not, I know better than they do. I knew that they would enjoy performing at this concert. And I was right.

In a related corollary, I am of the opinion that self-esteem comes from actually achieving something great, rather than constantly being told that you simply are great–without a periodic demand to stand up and prove it. Singing on stage with three professional cantors and a full adult choir before a few hundred people is not an easy thing to do. It’s intimidating and scary and getting past your fears in order to sing–and dance–is a major achievement. It warrants praise. And feeling good about yourself.

I wanted my children to have that experience. To feel fear and overcome it, and to be commended for it afterwards. I knew that it would teach them valuable lessons not just about Russian-Jewish music, but about any challenge they might face in life.

So I bribed them into it.

And I’d do it again. (But don’t tell them; they’ve had enough candy for now.)

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