Gentle parenting and a touch of bribery – The “Yes, Ma’am Jar”

I’m from New England.  We don’t say “sir” or “ma’am”.  We respect our elders, but those words were not part of our every day vernacular that I can recall.  When I moved to Florida as a teenager, I remember my stepmother’s mostly silent disapproval of my inability to add a “ma’am” to the end of my answers to her.  I just forgot.  I was never rude, it just took me 20 years to adapt.  But to the ears of a Southerner, the voice of a child answering, simply, “Yes”, sounds incredibly blunt, bordering on surly.

And now that I have a few pups of my own, and we are still living in the South, I find it necessary to teach them what is expected by the culture – by teachers, pastors, great aunts and such.  But my boy is like me, never with bad intentions, but slow to learn.

My reminders to Nolan of this gesture, small but rife with tradition, have ranged from gentle…“Don’t you mean, ‘yes, ma’am’?” … to terse …”Yes, MA’AM!”.  All for naught.  He could never remember.

One day a few weeks ago, I called out to my boy, and was answered by his typical “Whut?”  I turned on my heel, dug an empty mason jar out of a cabinet, and called him into the kitchen.

“This,” I told him, “is your ‘yes, ma’am’ jar.  Every time you say ‘yes ma’am’ or ‘yes, sir’, I will put a quarter in the jar.  Every time you don’t, I will take a quarter out.  We will do this for one week.”  And once I got him to acknowledge that arrangement with a “yes ma’am”, I placed a quarter in the jar.

Over the course of one week,, he earned some quarters, and lost a few.  He doesn’t take kindly to losing.  Upon losing a quarter, he would argue, and beg, and when all else failed, cry.  But in the end, when he would resign himself to his situation with a melancholy “yes ma’am”, he would, do his delight, get a quarter back in his jar.

By the end of the week, he was several dollars richer.  I tend to believe that reward systems undermine the satisfaction that a child feels from a job well done, but I felt that limiting the time that we used the system might make it fun to establish a new habit.  The jar is now gone but the habit has stuck.

When I came home from work last Monday, I could see him excitedly calling to me and waiving his arms from the driveway.  He ushered me inside to show me a comment that his teacher had written in his school notebook:

photo (8)

I’m proud.  I’m happy to have chosen a gentler method.  Nagging didn’t work.  Getting irritated didn’t work.  But working with him…that worked.


About Joyce

40-year-old university advisor, 10-years married with two small children, trying to do it all and have it all and still manage the occasional social interaction through the wonderful world of blogging.
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18 Responses to Gentle parenting and a touch of bribery – The “Yes, Ma’am Jar”

  1. Money can work. I don’t know if it is the best way but I am using it to. I am tired of my older son getting up so ridiculously early. It is sort of working.
    if you are interested, my new blog address is:

    • Joyce says:

      My husband started to take out his wallet to give him a dollar for his good comment, but I stopped him. I truly feel like it would have undermined the deep sense of satisfaction Nolan felt from a job well done. However, a little reward system is not a bad thing.

      New blog?? Are you leaving us? On the other hand, I’m happpy to know your name. I’ve always thought of you as “Jersey”.

      BTW, you’re from the Northeast…do they do sir and ma’am up there? I don’t remember that being a requirement there. But maybe that’s just CT.

  2. We have a similar system in place that works pretty good with those small behaviors that can be easily shifted with some reminders (we use buttons because I never have change in the house…when the jar is filled we get to do a fun outing). I love the note from the teacher. It’s great when they recognize good behaviors!

    • Joyce says:

      Oops…just seeing this comment! I really like the idea of using buttons. Seems to make it less of a bribe and more of a goal. My son does love squirelling away his money though.

  3. Valerie says:

    Being that I was born and raised in Michigan, I didn’t grow up saying that, nor do we require our children to respond with yes, ma’am or sir, even though that is what 99% of children here do!! It just feels uncomfortable. Haha But we do have them say yes, mama or daddy, which is basically the same thing. 😉

    • Joyce says:

      Where I am from, children taught manners just like everywhere else. It truly is just a cultural preference. Another thing we do here is that the children add a Miss or Mister to the first name when addressing an adult. I’m sure you’ve encountered that as well.

      • Valerie says:

        Yes, we do the Miss and Mister with other adults here; it becomes their name really. 🙂 Like the librarians, ect are all “Miss so-and-so”. I just meant that in Michigan it’s not common to say yes ma’am or sir. I don’t disagree with it, I’m just not accustomed to it. 😉 Growing up, we would answer our parents and teachers politely, just not in that way.

      • Joyce says:

        Oh, yes…that’s what I mean. A child who does not say sir or ma’am when it is not required by their culture is not less polite than anyone else. It’s just a regional preference. I remember talking about it with my step-mom and she just flat out said, “Well it’s rude.” She just didn’t get it 🙂

      • Valerie says:

        Haha! Well, she would be in for a shock if she were to ever visit my home town. 😉

  4. Real Mom Dee says:

    Oh my goodness can I related to this! I didn’t grow up with that (I’m from Texas but Mom was from Arizona/California) so we weren’t expected to do it and, of course, didn’t raise my children to do it either while we lived in Colorado and Utah areas. Then we moved here to Georgia. Suddenly I had the “rudest” children! I was so sad that they were getting called that when it was really just a cultural thing. We’ve been working on it but my youngest is 15 and it’s just not an easy change as you get older. Love your ideas though…After raising 7 (5 my own and 2 step-sons), plus 8 foster children, I’ve always found rewards work better than punishment and I still think they’re “working” for it if you’re taking out as well as putting in! 😉 You’re a good mommy!

  5. Joyce says:

    Aw…thanks! Sure sounds like you are a good mommy too. And a busy one at that.

    Something that might help your 15 y.o. (and any other kiddos) would be if you were to call her ma’am as you converse. My son’s karate teacher does that with all the students. I’m trying to do that with my son as well, but sometimes I still forget!

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