A Spoon Full of Sugar…

by Donald Wilson on May 26, 2011


Grandma's Cinnamon Rolls

“And please bless the homeless and those without jobs, and the poor.  Help them to find a house and work and stuff so they won’t suffer so much,” is a common refrain when it’s Andrew’s turn to say the dinner prayer.   I know he picked up on it from listening to my prayers that always have some variation on the theme that I intone when it’s my turn.   I have to admit that it always warms my heart to hear him say those words, but it also gives me pause wondering what he might be feeling as he says it.

It wasn’t so long ago that Andrew was one of those people whom we pray for each night.   Even before his mother died, he wasn’t exactly living the highlife. After his mother passed away, it was a very different story.  Suddenly he was living in a one-room apartment with five people, no bathroom, and a hotplate they called a kitchen. Obviously, food was scarce and limited.

I can’t imagine what living that life must have felt like.  When I hear him pray those words, I wonder if they are motivated by an image of earlier days, or is it just a mindless habit that has been ingrained over time like fastening a seatbelt when he gets into the car?

Habit and motivation are two powerful ideas that often get pitted against each other.  I can’t tell you how many discussions I have had regarding intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. I have to admit that before I had Andrew, more often than not, I chose extrinsic motivation as my control method of choice, as in, “If you learn your times tables, you will get to participate in the class pizza party.”  Having Andrew, however, puts things in a different light.  Now, I was talking about my own son and I had to really think about where I stood on the subject.

From the start I had so many dreams for Andrew.  I imagined he would hear a Mozart concerto at Disney Hall and then be wild with desire to practice the piano the next day.  I was sure that, regardless of the task at hand, I could create a vision of the future so clear that passion would take over and another Joshua Bell would be born.  Turns out that it’s not that easy.

What I should have learned over my 20 years as an educator, I quickly learned as a father.  Intrinsic motivation comes from being challenged enough by a task to keep it interesting, but being sufficiently capable at it to find pleasure in it.   It’s easy enough to find tasks that are challenging for a kid, but the other part takes time and patience… and bribes.  I mean it.  I have decided which side of the aisle I fall on this; a well-planned bribe is the ticket to life-long intrinsic motivation.  Bear with me on this.

Most tasks we ask kids to do take effort: musical instrument practice, reading, dishes, cleaning your room, and to do them well demands repeated practice.  However once a child reaches a certain skill level, pleasure takes over and your job as a parent becomes easier.   The word “bribe” is a little overkill, but you have to find a way to make difficult tasks palatable until they find joy in doing it.  The key to a successful incentive is to know what motivates your child.

For Andrew, it was money.   He hadn’t had much of it in his life and he would do just about anything for it.  I capitalized on this and structured a daily schedule of chores that encompassed everything he needed to build good habits.  This included homework, music practice, making his bed, brushing his teeth, and reading 30 minutes per day.  When a task became a habit, I took the item off the chart and replaced it with a more complicated task such as washing the dishes or doing the laundry.   For this he earned one dollar per year old per week, so at nine he earned nine dollars per week, at ten he earned ten dollars, etc.  The weekly total was divided into days and if he didn’t do any one item for a particular day, he lost all the money for the day.  He did not get money for a partial day’s work; it was all or nothing.  Andrew quickly chose to do it all.  Every day.

One of the most memorable successes was with Andrew’s reading.   I was plowing him with books that he was required to read 30 minutes a day.  He initially struggled with decoding and then vocabulary, but he would dutifully get the timer, pick his book, and read until the alarm went off.  Immediately at the sound, he would put the book down and not think about it until the next day.  It was all hard work and very little pleasure.

This went on for over a year when I had to leave for a week on school business, and my mother came to stay with him during that time.  Even though it was grandma, there was no wiggle room when it came to duties.  One night when I called home, my mom said she couldn’t get Andrew to read; he had finished his book and didn’t have another one he wanted to read.  I got Andrew on the phone and suggested he read Eragon by Christopher Paolini, a book his cousin had given him.  He protested that he had already tried it and didn’t like it.  I reminded him that it had been over a year since he had tried reading it and that he was a much better reader now.  I told him to just give it a try for 30 minutes, and if he didn’t like it, grandma could get him a new book the following day.  He agreed and dutifully got out the book and timer.

I called about three hours later to check in and my mom said Andrew was still reading.   He has been an avid reader ever since.

And unbelievably, he practices music, does the dishes, cleans his room, and does his homework.  No complaints, ever.  He’s even found his Zen groove doing dishes and jamming to his Itunes.   The other amazing thing is that his allowance is now only connected to keeping his bathroom clean while everything else is just part of who he has become.

Which brings me back to that prayer for the poor.  The truth is, I don’t think Andrew has any thoughts of his past or even his mother’s family as he recites that prayer.   He has come so far and is so profoundly my son that I’m pretty sure his current vision of himself is completely disconnected from his earlier years.   After so much tragedy in his life, I’m glad it is; he deserves to live guilt free.   But I don’t want him to grow up thinking that charity and outreach to the poor ends with a nightly prayer before one of our decidedly bourgeois meals.   I want him to be internally motivated and have a habit of charitable giving and serving others.  I’m beginning to realize that it’s the next big thing to put on the chores’ chart.  Maybe adopting a grandparent at a local rest home or getting in the habit of helping out at a soup kitchen will be one of those chores.  I know he will complain at first, and I know that I may have to provide incentive like some major time with the Xbox.   I also know that somewhere down the line he will have that moment when he realizes that serving others is like a big love boomerang that comes whirling back to strike you right in the heart, leaving you a much better and happier person than before.



Nothing says incentive like something warm, sweet, and gooey.  These are the cinnamon rolls that I grew up on and they were a part of the almost weekly visits by my grandparents.  Even in her late eighties, my grandma Emma, barely able to walk would gently shuffle her feet to move herself around the kitchen as she sat on a well worn office chair.  I wish I had paid more attention to what she was doing between shuffles, because her recipe cards are the product of someone who would never use a recipe.  Her original recipe calls for a whopping 3 packages of yeast and uses 4½ cups flour as a very loose starting point.  She also used powder milk which I’m sure was a left over habit from living through the depression.  I’ve made these rolls following her recipe and channeling her spirit to get the flour right, but making a few adjustments makes it a much easier and foolproof process.

Ready for Andrew

Grandma Emma’s Cinnamon Rolls (or Dinner Rolls)

1 1/2  packages dry yeast (or 3 teaspoons if using bulk yeast)

1/2 cup warm water

4-1/2 tablespoons sugar

1-1/2 teaspoons salt

1 cup milk

1/3 cup melted butter

2 eggs beaten

4-1/2 cups flour (I end up using almost 5 cups)

For cinnamon mixture:

1 cup melted butter

1-1/2 cups brown sugar

2/3 cup white sugar

Cinnamon (about 3 tablespoons)

Put yeast, warm water, sugar, and salt in bowl and let work for about 10 minutes until bubbly.  Add the milk to the yeast mixture.  Add butter to beaten eggs and then to yeast mixture.  Add 2 cups flour to mixture and blend.  Continue adding flour gradually to make dough consistency right for kneading.  (May need more than the 4-1/2 cups flour.)  Place in bowl and let rise until double.  Punch down. Let rest 5 minutes.

For dinner rolls:  Pinch off dough and place in greased pan.

For cinnamon rolls:  Divide dough in half.  Roll out first dough to about a 12 by 16 rectangle; spread melted butter on dough.  Add sugar mixture, then sprinkle cinnamon on top of sugar mixture.  Roll into jelly-roll fashion, slice and place in greased pan.

Roll the dough into a large rectangle


Fill with butter and cinnamon/sugar mixture


Gently roll dough into a baton


Cut the rolls and place in pan

Let rise until double.  Bake at 375 degrees for 15 minutes or until golden brown.  Makes at least 3 pans of rolls. (note:  I find that lowering the heat to 350 and letting them cook just a bit more, allows for a more tender roll)







Michael and Quinn May 26, 2011 at 12:16 pm

Excellent Don! Quinn and I have just started volunteering for a group called Ethos, taking Seniors shopping and helping with household jobs. I think soon we will be bringing along Grandma’s Cinnamon Rolls, if they survive the car ride over that is. 🙂

Ginger Carlson May 26, 2011 at 1:02 pm

Beautiful post, Don! Perhaps delivering for Meals on Wheels would be fun for you guys. We volunteered weekly (for the 5 years we lived in Eugene) at an organic garden that grew many of the veggies for the soup kitchen and school cafeterias. Not sure if something like that exists, but that was a fabulous volunteer opportunity because it got us in the dirt and helping out at the same time.

Donald Wilson May 27, 2011 at 4:07 am

I love being inspired by my friends and this is definitely true today. Thank you for your comments and thoughts. I’ve been thinking about adopting a grandparent with Andrew, but maybe we can do a combo with Meals on Wheels. I think Andrew would like that.

Mimi Bonetti May 27, 2011 at 6:27 pm

I love this Don, and am inspired myself!

Don Wilson May 30, 2011 at 1:53 am

Your comment makes me want to move to Eugene! I love that a city exists that supplies it’s soup kitchen with organic veggies!

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