Do you ever wonder why you do certain things, like why do you reward yourself with a piece of cake or a new pair of shoes for being a responsible citizen? Why did I just eat two pieces of chocolate cake for just making a good grade? Well, today I got a glimpse of where it might come from, with some other insights along the way.

I went for a walk in my neighborhood this morning and ran into a neighbor with her three-year-old daughter. I joined up with them and we began to catch up with each other’s lives. Her daughter was on her tricycle having a great time. Her stuffed animal dog was along for the ride. Of course, the dog slipped off the bike and none of us noticed for quite a distance. The daughter was the first to notice and she gladly went back on her bike and picked up the dog.

Mom watched her safely go back and return. Mom states loudly, “Good job!” I immediately responded to my neighbor “What was so good about that?” She looked at me puzzled. I said “Look at how responsible she was to go back happily and willingly to pick up her dog. Notice and describe what she did and then add that was helpful. When you notice and describe it stimulates her frontal lobes. You’ve authentically noticed her being responsible.”

My neighbor immediately responded to her daughter and did a “high five.” The daughter’s face lit up like a Christmas tree. I looked at my neighbor and said, “You have a choice. You can say ‘good job’ or you can notice and describe and get a lit up Christmas tree every time.”

On we go around the block and my neighbor raises her voice to her daughter to “STOP” at the street as a car was approaching the intersection. The daughter stops and my neighbor rushes to her daughter’s side with anxiety and fear flowing through every cell of her body. She begins to utter the usual remarks as every parent encounters a fearful moment.

I kept up with my neighbor and quickly and gently interrupted her remarks by saying to the daughter, “You heard your Mom scream ‘stop’ and you stopped. Mommy’s job is to keep you safe. You stopped. You did it.” Again, her face lit up that she had indeed stopped. She had listened.

We continued on our way and my neighbor said to her daughter, “You get five jelly beans when we get home.” The daughter’s face looked a bit confused as to why, but she wasn’t about to turn down jelly beans. I asked, “Why?” My neighbor answers as if I am from Mars. “We give out jelly beans for good behavior.” My brain is wondering why she is rewarding her daughter for just being responsible … for listening.

My brain raced ahead 20 years and I could see this preschooler as a young girl rewarding herself with chocolate cake when she was good. And then I began to go deeper and wonder what compels parents to parent from a posture of fear; a fear that their child won’t be a responsible citizen unless they “reward” their child for just being good. I believe that being in relationship with your child will motivate them to “behave.” Children will more likely choose to behave if they feel noticed for kind acts; for listening. Your words of noticing are the reward!

“You went back and picked up your dog. That was helpful.” Your reward is that your child will grow up to be a cooperative, loving and caring adult.

It’s your choice: love or fear.

For more on the choice between love and fear, watch Dr. Bailey’s enlightening talk on PBS: “Shifting from Fear to Love.”