Learning from Curious George

Grandchildren provide endless learning opportunities, including the chance to watch television shows older people might miss. My grandson Isaac, age 1½, and I were watching Curious George a few days ago when the little monkey (George) addressed one of the great questions of life.

George and a young friend were visiting a farm where all the animals except one were winners of blue ribbons at the county fair. The only nonwinner was a hog named Howie, who just couldn’t seem to muster the energy to train for the grueling competition. His previous attempts ended in failure after he started out well, but quickly faded. George and his friend decided they would train Howie to win at the upcoming fair and received a hog training manual from the farmer who owned Howie.

The first instruction was to wash the hog every day and then find a stick to prod him to exercise for at least 30 minutes daily. Howie was fine with the washing but completely opposed to being poked with a stick. George discovered that Howie liked apples and decided to experiment with an incentive program rather than the recommended stick. Not surprisingly, the apples did the trick. Howie worked hard, performed brilliantly at the fair and was rewarded with both an apple and a blue ribbon.

The episode did not delve into the darker issues of what happens to blue ribbon-winning hogs after the fair is over and, like most cartoons, ended on a happy note. The lesson viewers young and old received from Curious George is that the carrot or apple works better than the stick. I liked the show and the chance to watch it with Isaac, who is a great cuddler. The message appealed to my own beliefs and caused me to think about occasions where I might have forgotten how incentives work better than punishment.

Daily stresses often cause us to reach for the easiest solution or the one we have grown accustomed to rather than a more creative and effective approach. I remember yelling at my children at different points in their life when, with a little patience, I could have tried a better technique. I don’t do it very often, but occasionally I still fall into the yelling habit with grandchildren when they do something that scares me. My only basis for requesting understanding is that I raised children and they are now raising grandchildren who have no respect for their personal safety. I haven’t figured out what the incentive is to stop children from racing motorcycles or diving off cliffs into water and would welcome suggestions.

Curious George also reminded me that in our work lives most of us respond better to incentives than we do to punishment. We try to recognize that fact by providing competitive salaries and benefits, but most importantly, by the way we treat each other every day. I can think of few instances where yelling at someone accomplishes much. If a behavior is damaging enough to require discipline, the consequence up to and including termination can still be imposed with respect. I appreciated my recent lesson from Isaac and Curious George.