Updated: Jul 25, 2019
By Dr. Sarah Haas *
Providing rewards for good, appropriate behavior. A good parenting trick or an ugly rabbit hole?
If your child will do the behaviors you want them to do, most of the time, without a reward, then...maybe all the rewards you use involve praise and positive attention. Maybe you don't need to use external rewards!
Getting rewards for "doing the right thing" is not how the real world works. "Rewards" is just a nice word for "bribes". My child will want a big reward for a small behavior. Rewards will teach my child to always do things for some external benefit. If I use a reward system now, they will always have to be rewarded for behaviors. Rewards will be a huge financial strain. My child won't learn to do things for intrinsic value (because it's the right thing to do, or because it feels good). My child does not care about rewards.
These are all legit concerns! So let's think about each one individually to find out if these concerns are real. Oh and just like practically everything else in life, some techniques work for some families and not others. So are rewards right for your child and your family? Let's explore some of these questions to find out!
Rewards in Real Life
Outside of your role as a parent, would you be going to your job if you did not get a paycheck? Paychecks are the ultimate reward system. This is not to say you're not willing to help our neighbors and do favors for your friend, but ultimately your paycheck motivates you to go to work every day.
Rewards as Bribes
OK so after finding stories of rich and famous people bribing folks in college admissions to enroll their children into top universities, the definition of a bribe emerged via a Google search, which was to "persuade (someone) to act in one's favor, typically illegally or dishonestly, by a gift of money or other inducement." Do you feel it is illegal or dishonest to use a reward to get your child to follow your commands?
Small Behavior = BIG Reward
It is easy to view rewards as a carrot where your child will do said behavior if a reward is in place. For some parents, this may paint a picture where the child is in total control of the behavior and the reward, and is negotiating hard for major rewards for small behaviors. Think: "If I feed the dog, I want 5 hours of video game time".
But how do rewards encourage behavior? Many people may feel like rewards work by simple input (behavior) = output (reward). But, I'd argue they work differently than that.
Let's work through a relatable example. You wake up in the morning and you know you have a lot to do. So you first, make yourself a cup of coffee, and then you create yourself a to-do list. What do you put at the top of that list? Often, people will put their first priority at the very top of their to-do list. Why do we do that? It places a higher emphasis on that behavior, which helps us remember that we need to get that specific thing get done.
Rewards for your child may very well work in the same way. Rewards can help the child prioritize what behaviors they need to control. That is, giving a reward for a particular behavior may place a child's focus on controlling that behavior on the top of their to-do list.
That is, giving a reward for a particular behavior may place a child's focus on controlling that behavior on the top of their to-do list.
In this way, rewards make the behavior the child needs to engage in more salient. They know they want more video game time, so they are more likely to remember what they need to do to get more video game time. This technique may be especially helpful for a child who has a short attention span or who is forgetful. In this way, rewards are used as a way to encourage a child to recall what behavior they need to control to get a reward, and motivates them to do this.
Some people are lucky enough to get bonuses for accomplishing certain goals throughout each month, quarter, or year. If you are lucky enough to get bonuses at work, your bonus should work in the same way.
You have a million things to do at work each and every day, but most likely you're going to prioritize doing things that are going to get you closer to your bonus.
Not to mention, you might be more likely to work a little harder to accomplish those goals that will get you a bonus.
So, what things make for a good reward system?
1. Setting up clear reward system ahead of time
If rewards can help make a particular behavior more salient, then this suggests you need to know what you're getting (reward) and for what behavior (goal).
2. Few behaviors = rewards
You (and your child!) are more likely to be successful if you remember what behaviors will get you your rewards. If you can't rattle off which goals need to be accomplished in order for you to get your bonus, your boss may not be using that reward system in the most effective way!
3. Have rewards go beyond financial things
Rewards can also be privileges. Some privileges can include picking out a special food for dinner or snack, being a parent's helper, reading a book, video game time, and even praise!
4. Follow through with rewards, consistently
This follows the age-old adage of "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me". If your child learns they are doing a lot of hard work but they aren't getting the rewards they thought they were going to get, they will learn quickly not to try so hard to control those behaviors.
In a similar vein, if you provide consequences this week and not next week, even though your child earned them, your child may not have a good way of being able to tell if they will get rewarded or not for their hard work. Especially for kids who give up easily, this may not be a very motivating system for them to operate within.
5. Set small, achievable goals to start
If your boss tells you to make 500 sales within the next two minutes, you might not even pick up the phone and try. Even if your boss tells you they will give you $100,000 for completing these sales. So why wouldn't you do it? Because the goal feel impossible, so why bother? Your child can feel easily defeated before even starting as well, if they feel the goal is too hard to accomplish. This means it is important to base these goals on your child's developmental age, not their chronological age (e.g., This means basing the goals on what your child can do, not what you think they should be able to do because they are 9-years-old, for example). Even if you promise them Disney World, they won't accomplish their goal if it is too hard for them to do.
6. Use rewards that are motivating
I'm not sure many kids respond to, "if you listen to me and do what you're told all day, I'll give you kidney beans for dinner!" Of course, that is a bit of an exaggeration for the point that if your child is not motivated by a particular reward, they aren't going to be very interested in changing their behavior. Get your child's input about what they want to work for and what motivates them!
Keep in mind that changing any behavior takes a lot of hard work. Just because a child is not engaging in a "developmentally-appropriate" behavior does not mean that they are not working hard to correct it, especially if you are using a reward system. Instead, try to remain positive and make a point to emphasize the times that they are doing a really good job doing the appropriate behavior, while perhaps acknowledging that what they are doing is tough!
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