Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Motivational Power of Chocolate Chips

Middle has been working hard on violin. She listens well, she’s precise and energetic, and she really does a beautiful job. But she’s also a little dreamer-girl (no surprise there). Recently we’ve been dealing with some sound and bow-control issues that I suspected were a result her looking everywhere except at what she was doing. Getting her to watch her bow has been a challenge; it’s not easy to focus on something so close to your face, and besides, there’s so much other interesting stuff to look at!

So today during our practice session I put a handful of chocolate chips in a dish, brought it out to her, and told her, “We’re going to play a game. These chocolate chips are all yours. But every time you look away from your bow or your fingers while you’re playing I get to take one for myself. You can eat whatever is left at the end of our practice.” And what do you know, watching what she was doing wasn’t nearly as hard as we thought! She kept every last chocolate chip.

This wasn’t my original idea; I first heard about it from another teacher years ago. I used it today because nothing else I tried was working and I wanted results. But there was a funny side-effect I hadn’t considered. Middle heard the difference in how she played when she was watching her bow, and she liked the results. Suddenly it wasn’t only about the chocolate—she began to understand what attentiveness means, and she caught a glimpse of what it could do for her playing.  I don’t know if it will stick—we’ll see what happens tomorrow, and next week, and next month. But because of the external motivation I offered, she got a taste of the kind of internal motivation that could help her for the rest of her life. And here I thought it was just a bribe.


  1. chuckle--wonderful! I think external motivation FREQUENTLY leads to internal.

    BTW, I heard of something else involving chocolate chips. When things have somehow gotten scattered all over the house (not that this ever happens to us, of course) you line your kids up, give one a chocolate chip and a job (go put the dump truck on the back porch), then the next kid, and so forth, and they run to do the job and come back for another choc chip and job until the house is picked up.

    This is called "(cheap) payment for work done"--NOT a bribe! chuckle

  2. Oh, I love it! (The house is perfectly "arranged" for just such an experiment, too.) I've heard my dad, too, say a number of times when working with Suzuki parents, that there's a difference between bribes and incentives--with incentives the parents are in control and calling the shots. With bribes the child is calling the shots, i.e., "I'll do that if you give me something in exchange." I think it's an important distinction.


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