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On a summer Nantucket afternoon, the 8-year-old mermaid queen organized the kitchen pantry. The wizard drew crayon portraits in the Den of Tranquility. The boy with super-speed concocted fresh Spemonades—that’s one part Sprite, one part lemonade—for myself and a few lucky houseguests. I took a sip and announced, reflexively, “Delicious! One point for you!” He darted inside from the back porch, shouting to the other adventurers, “Two more points, and I’m at Level 9!”
What was this world I’d made?
It started three months earlier, when I dove headfirst into parenthood for the first time. In April I became a stepdad to three amazing kids: two boys and a girl, ages 5, 6, and 8, respectively. For the most part I parented by intuition. I dealt with the usual conflicts—the I-wants, the but-whys, the it’s-my-turns—as I suspect most parents do: inconsistently, haphazardly, making it up, all the time. Yet by late June on vacation in New England, our rented house was overflowing with extended family, Lego pieces, and restless energy. Messes—both emotional and spaghetti-based—abounded. “What would encourage me to clean up and play nice?” I wondered, trying to put myself in the shoes of a 6-year-old, not exactly a quantum leap for a man who loves jelly beans and plays Minecraft.
Points, games, adventure.
“Whoever takes their plates to the sink gets one experience point!”
The adults at the dinner table laughed. For the kids, a switch flipped. They rushed into the kitchen.
“Three more XP for tidying the house—at 10 XP, you’ll reach Level 2!”
Within minutes, downstairs was spotless; the kids were beaming; my wife, Paige, was in awe (or maybe shock); and I was feeling smug. The game was on.
Good behavior soon became an elaborate role-playing adventure, borrowing liberally from my favorite video games and fantasy tropes. The children and I were co-authors of a silly tale full of mini quests, in which every “experience point”—or XP—inched the kids closer to rewards. The next day, I took a red marker and wrote out a leveling system on a sheet of construction paper.
LEVEL 5 (50 XP) — CHARACTER CLASSES: Choose Your Own!
LEVEL 10 (100 XP) — POWER-UPs: King/Queen of Sugar (extra dessert), Insomniac (stay up late), Teleportation (piggyback ride)
LEVEL 15 (150 XP) : JOURNEY TO THE ARCADE: Redeem XP for $$!!
It worked. With points on the line, the kids’ behavior was suddenly impeccable. In the following days, they helped with the dishes (three XP), held the door for strangers (five XP), and complimented me, the bestower of points, constantly (... one XP). John, the 6-year-old superhero, refrained from starting WWE-style brawls in the living room, eager for the “King of Sugar” power-up. The mermaid Millicent was quietly determined to earn the “Insomniac” ability, which allowed her to stay up late with the adults. One evening, Oliver (age 5, Level 7, wizard) brought me a drawing of a heart captioned I LOVE YOU and said, imploringly, “X-peeeee?”
After we stopped laughing, Paige gave me her best “let’s chat” look. By this point, we were four days and nearly a dozen levels deep into the XP game. “I don’t know how I feel about points,” she told me in the hallway. Rewards, Paige explained, come with drawbacks. She had in mind a long line of social-psychology research suggesting that “extrinsic rewards”—perks such as points, stickers, sweets, and money—dampen “intrinsic motivation,” a person’s desire to do something because they want to, not because someone is giving them a cookie to do it. (A few hours later, I discovered Paige offering Millicent 10 XP to clean the foyer—an exorbitant, game-breaking amount, but I digress.) She had a point: The game was startlingly effective and a lot of fun, but it worked almost too well. I began to wonder if my spontaneous parenting experiment was a cheat code.
For adults and kids alike, there’s little escaping points systems in modern life. School grades, social-media likes, and employee-performance reviews are all forms of quantification that turn people into data and use scores to shape behavior.
Games boil these mechanics down to their most simplistic. Real life is an infinitely open-ended mystery, but games are universes in which the rules are known, our choices are limited, and “meaning” isn’t something to fuss over. All that matters is the pursuit of sweet, sweet points. Games “give us value clarity,” the philosopher C. Thi Nguyen, an associate professor at the University of Utah and the author of Games: Agency as Art, told me. “We know exactly what we’re doing, we know exactly how we’ve succeeded, and success is always clearly delineated … ‘I scored a point! It’s inarguable!’” In his book, Nguyen refers to games as an “existential balm for our practical unease with the world.”
But although game mechanics are powerful, they aren’t always healthy in parenting. In 1985, the psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan published their seminal book about the Self-Determination Theory of motivation. Deci and Ryan inspired numerous experiments showing that if you repeatedly reward a person (e.g., give your kid cash for good grades) and then remove that reward (your kid goes to college, and the cash disappears), motivation tends to decrease dramatically.
External motivators might appear to work wonderfully, but they’re the short-term, high-carb-candy-bar version of motivation. Eventually, there’s a crash. Self-Determination Theory explores the fruits-and-veggies form of internal motivation that arises when individuals fulfill three basic needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. If people can satiate those qualities in an activity, then they don’t need a carrot or a stick.
It turns out I may have wielded points-as-power like a bad behaviorist. But the kids and I carved out an imaginative space in which we made choices—to build a sandcastle or swim in the ocean?—acted heroically, and worked together. Surely this wasn’t all detrimental? I thought. So I asked parenting experts for their opinions on my decision to gamify the kids’ vacation.
The reviews were mixed. Virginia Shiller, a co-author of Rewards for Kids! and an assistant clinical professor at Yale, told me that rewards can be effective, especially for tasks that are dull or unattractive, like cleaning one’s room. Beth Hennessey, a professor emerita of psychology at Wellesley College, agreed, telling me by email that incentives work if the activity is “fairly rote, with one best path to [a] solution.” But if creative behavior is at stake and there are many possible paths to a solution, rewards should be avoided. According to Hennessey, mental space is required to appreciate the finer details of a task; a preoccupation with an anticipated reward can detract from the creative process.
Essentially, to parent through rewards is to play with the levers of a child’s dopamine. This can be effective as long as it’s done with the goal of building up children’s autonomy rather than bending them to our parental will, according to Ned Johnson and William Stixrud, the authors of The Self-Driven Child. Stixrud, a clinical neuropsychologist, told me, “We know that for kids with ADHD who just have trouble making themselves do things unless they’re highly interested … rewards can be helpful, because they jack up dopamine,” which he described as “the neurotransmitter for drive.” Boosting dopamine isn’t necessarily a bad thing in moderation. Some kids, some of the time, will benefit from a kick start. But Stixrud suggested talking openly with kids about how and why you’re using incentives, even if that means breaking the fourth wall of parenting and giving them insight into how you’re managing their wants and needs.
An overreliance on external rewards not only impedes kids from motivating themselves but also could make them feel like their parent’s love is conditional. “Kids start to conflate getting the reward … with parental approval,” Johnson told me. Though Stixrud and Johnson agreed that the XP game sounded fun and silly, they emphasized the importance of it being co-participatory: The kids could affect narrative outcomes and decide on rules, like what “power-ups” they might receive and the number of XP earned for certain tasks. “The primary goal for us in raising our children is for them to be able to run their own lives,” Stixrud said. “Our job, particularly as they get older, is to play a consultative role.”
It’s easy to forget, but human beings, especially children, are always in flux, a whirlwind of chemicals and feelings. How well-behaved kids are in a given moment is determined not by a single obedience trait but by “their state of regulation … their development stage, the attainability of the demand at hand, and so much more,” Tina Payne Bryson, a co-author of The Whole-Brain Child, told me by email. A rigid points system can’t account for all of these variables. What I realize now is that XP wasn’t the most valuable part of our vacation game; the magic happened in the playing itself, in the worlds we made up.
Back home in a points-less reality, the kids still navigate the good and the bad of check marks at school, trophies in sports, and, yes, the occasional peace offering of extra video-game time at home. But the XP game is mostly phased out, in part because of our concerns about constant rewards and competition (“Why does he get all the points?”) and in part because it’s not easy to recapture the excitement of our earliest island quests.
We still play, though. A month or so after our vacation, the kids showed me a massive blanket fort they’d constructed, complete with multiple “rooms,” natural ventilation, and windows with TV views. They pulled me by the arms, dragging me to Fort City’s flapping gates, and asked, as I’d once trained them to do, “Do we get XP?!”
“Sure!” I said. “But who’s counting?”