Sugarplums as bribes for obedience a Pavlovian experience

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Sugarplums as bribes for obedience a Pavlovian experience

I was firmly convinced after two years of teaching in Korea that bribery was a sure-fire method for maintaining order in the classroom. I guess it was only a matter of time before it all blew up in my face.
One student of mine in particular was a veritable minefield of emotional outbursts. There seemed to be no way to keep him from disrupting class. So I decided to try and bribe him. I promised him a sweet treat if he would be nice for an entire class period. Fat chance.
For the first five minutes or so after I made my deal with this little devil, all I heard from him was: “Caaandyyyy . . . caaaandyyyy.” I reminded him, firmly, that candy would only come at the end of class if behavior was satisfactory. His voice then began to take on a strange scratchy, high-pitched squeal as he continued his plea for a sugar fix.
Tears began to trickle down his pale cheeks. As tears were a common occurrence with this pupil, I thought little of it. But then he started to crawl up onto his desk, inching nearer and nearer to the candy in my pocket, his outstretched arm frozen in an urgent grasp.
As I continued with the lesson, trying to ignore him while staying just out of reach, he became more desperate. He started wailing, emitting a sound so primal I am certain that no hominid had ever uttered it before. I began to suspect that his diet contained so much sugar that what I was witnessing were the severe withdrawal symptoms of a sweets addict.
He grabbed my arm, pulling me closer in hope of securing the piece of hard candy I had dangled in front of him at the start of class. At this point, I called in one of the Korean staff members and asked her to take the boy outside and explain to him that I would not give him the candy until the clock read 3:20 p.m., which was when our session ended.
He returned to class soon thereafter seeming much more cheery than before. Soon, the clock was off the wall and I was watching him spin the clock’s hands around to read 3:20. Apparently, the Korean staff member had translated what I said verbatim. I do not know if he really thought this pathetic ruse would work, but an addict’s desperation knows no bounds.
A few minutes later, 3:20 actually did tick around and I grudgingly handed over the tiny lump of sugar and artificial colors and flavors as promised. But the whole thing left me unsettled. By giving him the reward despite his out-of-line behavior, had I done the right thing? I think not. And I realized that bribery, even a bribe as small as a piece of candy, carries much more potential risk than reward.
On the plus side, I now feel qualified to help drug addicts change their ways; however, dealing with the young sugar-lovers might be more of a challenge.


by Andrew Harris

Mr. Harris, a New Zealander, teaches at a private language institute in Seoul.
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