Incentives for Toddlers

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Children, it turns out, can work out how to do lots of things on their own. Such as crawling, walking and eating. Some kids teach even themselves to do much more complex things, like reading.

Nothing, however, taxes a parent’s energy like toilet training. If a child reads a year later, it usually doesn’t affect much. But taking a year longer to learn how to go to the toilet is very costly. Even aside from the obvious costs of nappies and various cleaning routines, there comes a time when a parent feels enough is enough — usually somewhere around the 6000th nappy change.

The pressures to act build up quickly. At two or so years, your child is starting to look like a real person. Soon enough, they’ll need to attend kindergarten, before which they need to be certified as independent, toilet-trained individuals. Later on there are school, sleepovers and marriage. If the cord isn’t cut, none of those things will be available to them. But here you have a child with no interest whatsoever in abandoning the cushy, full-service attention they have enjoyed their entire life.

At this point someone eventually pipes up, "I think we should start potty-training junior this weekend."

And so begins a discussion of the plan, the timeline and the incentives. Even if you somehow delude yourself that you don’t need incentives, your child generally has other ideas. It is all much easier said than done.

This is all partly the fault of the comfortable disposable nappy. In the olden days — say, three decades ago — cloth nappies were the repository of choice. These had the feature that when they were wet, everyone knew it. Parents knew it, but the child also felt the discomfort. As the child grew older, the discomfort grew with them. The causal link between what they were doing, in a bodily function sense, and the discomfort was felt early and often. Thus, not only did parents want their child out of these things quickly, the child was on board too.

The unintended consequence of the disposable nappy is that it changed the "toilet or not" cost equation for the child. Incentive issues arise from a misalignment of interests. The disposable nappy was something both parent and child wanted, but when it comes to taking it away, their relative benefits are quite different.

Now this issue has occurred to many a parent at the toilet training stage of the modern child. I, for one, wondered whether an electrically fitted nappy could be constructed that would administer a short, sharp shock when wet. Somewhat less tortuously, the latest training pants (that is, nappies a child can pull up and down by themselves) have a liner in them so that a child can feel the wetness immediately. That may help them associate the physical act with its result, but it’s still far from incentive alignment.

No, if you want to take the nappy away, these days there are few options but to manage the whole exercise. And that requires thinking about the incentives.

Toilet training is an exercise in behaviour modification: you try to convince an otherwise happy and contented child that they have to take responsibility for their own actions — namely toileting. It is a classic situation where the interests of one party (the parents) differ from those of the other (the child). If you want to align those interests, someone is going to have to pay up. The only question is, how much? What reward do you offer to get the behaviour you want?

Enter Child No. 1. Despite my economics background, we decided that, initially, we would bid low and see if we could get away with it. We thought we would appeal to some broad, vague sense that it would be good to grow up. Wouldn’t that be "exciting"? It wasn’t long before the price started to rise. How do you bribe a two-year-old? All we could think of was food; in particular, "special" food.

We decided to begin with jelly beans. The basic reward was to give out jelly beans for successful toileting behaviour. You got one or two jelly beans depending upon what you did, with one for … I’m sure you can guess the rest.

The jelly bean may be the reward, but game theory teaches us that unless the "incentive contract" (that link between action and reward) is clearly communicated, it won’t work. So we didn’t simply have a bag of beans that we took out of the cupboard when required. Nor did we rely on a pretty chart to record success. Instead, we installed a whole publicly displayed apparatus. It stood atop a kitchen counter. When you wanted a jelly bean, you had to push a button. This started everything but a song and dance, following which a single jelly bean was dispensed.

Demonstration is the key and we decided to apply the reward universally. That is, anyone — including us and our guests — would be entitled to a jelly bean as they emerged from the bathroom.

For weeks, I would emerge from the bathroom to find my daughter standing outside, asking me if I was allowed one or two jelly beans. If we forgot to take one, we would be reminded.

Did this work? It certainly put the whole issue on the table, and our daughter showed much interest in spending time on the potty. But, after a couple of weeks, we had little to show for it except for a personal dislike of jelly beans.

At this point, we had to contemplate a ratcheting up of the reward — to chocolate frogs. This was a decision we did not take lightly, as we were well aware that at some point we would want to end our little incentive contract.

To a casual observer, it did the trick. While precious few jelly beans had been awarded to our daughter, she was now getting two or three chocolate frogs a day. Moreover, we started saving on nappies.

Alas, a more careful audit of our household performance would show dubious results. Our daughter realised that there was a very easy way she could acquire a frog. Basically, she worked out that if you sit on the toilet long enough, something will happen. And so she did this, for hours and hours on end.

This was becoming worrying and started to interfere with normal daily activities. So when she didn’t appear to tire of this behaviour, we changed the reward. She was only allowed to sit on the toilet for short (!) half hour bursts.

This all worked and, after a week, she began to anticipate her needs. In a flurry of activity we could make it to the toilet and there was much rejoicing. Although that gave rise to new issues. Our daughter worked out — as many kids do — that this was a way to instantly gain attention. Soon she also realised that by holding back, she could convert one trip to the toilet into two or three, and thus triple her frog consumption.

Tim Harford likens this effect to the way pole vaulter Sergei Bubka, who was paid a cash bonus each time he broke the world record, chose to do it a centimetre at a time. That’s the risk you face when you set down clear, objective rules for rewards. You often get what you pay for.

There are two reactions to such gaming. If our daughter was an employee and we were trying to reward her for performance we wanted, we might promise a reward if she obtained a "favourable" evaluation. The problem here is that, to avoid gaming, the evaluation cannot be clearly defined. You actually want it to say something like: "You get a chocolate frog when you go to the toilet in an appropriate and sustainable manner." Employees don’t often buy this type of deal, let alone children. Discretion makes those being rewarded wary of your commitment to paying up.

Finally we opted for an alternative course. We decided to phase out the reward program. This was not done without some fear: what if removing the system eliminated all our good work? But we did it slowly, first by increasing her quota (the period of time over which she had to exclusively use the toilet before getting a frog), and then removing the reward entirely.

Suffice it to say, there was no reversion, and all in all we were happy with the outcome. Eventually, the motive we initially hoped for — getting out of diapers and into more exciting underpants — took over. But the management process was painful and I can’t prove whether this wouldn’t have all happened of its own accord anyway, without rewards.

This is an edited extract from Parentonomics: An Economist Dad’s Parenting Experiences by Joshua Gans (UNSW Press: 2008). More at parentonomics.com.

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