Rewarding children’s behavior — it’s common, but should we be doing it? I was raised in the era of “good jobs” and gold stars; sticker charts and color-coded behavior cards. Many of us grew up with conditional rewards like, “If I do x, then I’ll get y.” Therefore, they became our defaults as we parent our own children.
Interestingly, researchers now have information that shows us that these types of rewards (and their related punishments) aren’t the best way to motivate children. In fact, they can even be detrimental to their development. In short, while they might work to varying degrees, they deny children the opportunity to develop their natural and intrinsic motivation to succeed. Alfie Kohn wrote an entire research-based book about this called Punished by Rewards (afflinks).
Likewise, punishments teach children to avoid doing certain behaviors that we find less than ideal. While that might sound like a good thing, there’s a catch. We want kids to make good choices because they’re driven to make good choices, and not because they’re afraid of us. That’s not connection-based parenting.
Experts do know, however, the many benefits of respectful, authoritative parenting. Part of that philosophy includes separating ourselves from conditional parenting, which can have the unintended effect of our kids thinking we approve of (and love) them only when they behave in certain ways. Of course, that’s not what we want them to believe when we DO love them unconditionally.
But is rewarding children’s behavior all bad?
Sure, we all like the proverbial carrot from time to time. I’ll agree that it’s not entirely black and white. Even I enjoy going out for a gelato or taking a long walk in a beautiful area if I’ve had a particularly rough week and want to somehow mark my survival. I do the same for my child. Her “reward” might be a special trip to a playground, a museum, or whatever feels right in the moment. With this mindset, I don’t think rewards are all bad as long as they’re not performance-based. They’re just part of day-to-day happy celebrations (and I’m far more likely to use that nomenclature for them).
A problem with rewards tied to behavior, however, is that children come to expect them (they should — we’re wiring them for it!), and we lose sight of the goal we wanted in the first place: intrinsic motivation. So, I don’t advocate tying rewards to a child’s specific behaviors, just like I wouldn’t want to withhold a beautiful walk (or gelato!) from myself just because I didn’t meet a deadline I’d worked hard to meet.
Good things are enough without having to be tied to behavior; that’s part of what makes them good.
How do I stop using rewards if I’ve started?
If your child has come to expect the rewards, it’s best not to go cold turkey and stop offering them entirely. That would likely feel to them like punishment. And we absolutely shouldn’t make our children suffer while we revise our parenting approaches, even if they’re for the better. Particularly if your children are young and “wired” from past experience for the sticker or whatever it is, trust your judgment in giving / not giving it to them. It’s important to tune into your child and gauge your response on how connected they’re feeling and whether they’re actively seeking out the reward, or proceeding happily with their day without the “carrot.” In this situation, I’d recommend a form of gentle weaning from rewards, if you will.
If you’ve been offering tangible rewards (example: a sticker for every good behavior), switch to an end-of-day reward, and eventually to a weekly “thank you” of some sort. Proceed onto intangible rewards, such as a special trip to the movies. You can still tie the event to whatever behavior the reward was attached previously.
From there, you can scale back to verbal appreciation — which frankly, is a wonderful way to communicate gratitude. For some children, “words of affirmation” are exactly the love language they need to feel motivated in the first place.
If you know the five love languages and are wondering where “gifts” play in, they still can. The trick is to offer gifts for the sake of gifts; not as a result of so-called good behavior.
Is verbally rewarding children’s behavior enough?
There are many ways to express gratitude. However, particularly for young children who live their entire lives “in the moment,” a genuine smile and sincere word of thanks are a lot more meaningful than a promise of a reward (which they might forget to associate with the behavior you sought in the first place). Or worse, you might find yourself in an otherwise avoidable tantrum situation for not providing the reward fast enough—and then all your work will have gone out the window.
Expressing sincere gratitude fosters connection-based relationships with our children.
Rather than rewarding children’s behavior with tangible items, these words work well for all ages. Remember to praise effort rather than result (it’s better for their long-term self worth) and include specifics in your description.
- “I appreciate you helping me with x!”
- “You worked so hard on x tonight.”
- “I’m proud of you for trying x.”
- “Thank you for x!”
We don’t want to overcompensate with too many verbal affirmations, though, or like all things, they’ll lose their value. Offer praise and gratitude for the things that matter. (By golly, please don’t praise a child for “good hopping” or “good playing,” because those are just what kids do naturally.) Lest we overthink it, we can relax. Express gratitude to kids like you would to anyone else.
Be genuine about it and just make sure to do it when it’s right—you know, perhaps when a reward might’ve been there previously.
Is it really that easy? Just express gratitude?
Yes. It is.
It can take time to change (perhaps with some growing pains) if you’ve been doing something else, but it really can be this easy.
What about rewarding children’s behavior for potty success and the other “standard” life skills we teach?
I’ll devote another post to the potty, but suffice it to say for now that rewards aren’t necessary even for things like that. No child needs a sticker / a chocolate / a toy or special privilege to do that which the body does naturally. More on this soon.
You’re not a bad parent if you reward your kids sometimes.
There are situations where it’s fine to reward kids in traditional ways. If I can return to my gelato analogy from above, it’s healthier if I don’t eat it (or, in this case, use rewards as incentives). It’s fine if I do eat gelato sometimes — I just don’t rely on it as a staple of my diet. And if I can choose a better option every time, terrific.
I will add, however, that it’s absolutely possible to raise a happy, healthy, well adjusted child without using traditional reward systems. I’ve done it and am still doing it. I never started parenting with rewards so staying the course now comes naturally.
What happens when kids get older?
We all work for paychecks (except those of us who work for the sake of love or passion, right)? True. However, I don’t know a single person who doesn’t want to enjoy their work; to feel intrinsically motivated to do it.
That brings me back to those of us who are working for love or passion. We do things because they bring us joy; because we want to (even on the hard days). That’s exactly what we’re trying to instill in our children, starting here.