You’ve heard this common advice: If you want your child to do something, set up a reward system. Give her a sticker or a point every time she does it. If she gets a certain number of them, she can turn them in for a bigger prize or reward.
At first glance, this seems like a harmless strategy. It’s certainly kinder than constantly punishing, scolding, or yelling at kids. You’ll probably even get an initial burst of the positive behavior you want to see. But there are some potential downsides of trying to use reward systems to influence children.
Possible Problems with Rewards as Motivational Tools
The drawbacks of reward systems have to do with unintended consequences, as well as the difficulty implementing them.
1. They can lead to a very unattractive bargaining attitude.
When children are used to receiving concrete rewards for doing the right thing, they may start to demand rewards. Hearing kids respond to simple requests by asking, “What do I get if I do that?” is aggravating for parents.
2. Some kids won’t play the game.
Let’s face it: Reward systems are designed to incentivize kids to do something they don’t necessarily want to do. Some children strongly dislike feeling controlled. They may refuse to be bought, insisting, “Keep your stupid reward! I don’t care!” Or they may decide the offered reward isn’t worth it, declaring, “No, I have enough money/stickers/toy cars. I don’t feel like doing that.”
3. They assume that misbehavior stems from a lack of motivation to be good.
Reward systems assume that children misbehave, because they don’t have a strong enough incentive to do the right thing. However, there are many reasons why kids might not be doing what we want them to do. They may be tired or hungry. They may be afraid of failure or increased expectations if they succeed. They may feel frustrated, overwhelmed, or hopeless and not know better ways to cope. They may be too distracted or disorganized to manage it. They may simply not be capable (yet) of doing what we want them to do. For example, there’s no way I could do a back handspring, even if someone offered me $1,000 to do it. Rewards are irrelevant when the demands we make exceed a child’s current level of ability.
4. They can get in the way of internal motivation.
Mountains of research show that when we reward kids for doing things that they would want to do anyway, it can undermine their desire to do them without rewards (See review by Deci, et al. 1999, 2001). For instance, in a classic study by Mark Lepper and colleagues, preschoolers who received an expected reward for playing with markers were later less likely to play with those markers during a free-choice period, compared to children who received no reward or a surprise reward.
5. Few families can keep them up for more than a few weeks.
Practically, even when reward systems “work” temporarily, they quickly fade in effectiveness. My observation is that after two or three weeks, kids get bored with them and parents get fed up with them. Changing the offered reward doesn’t really address this.
Are Rewards Ever Useful?
So, should you ever use rewards to gain your child’s cooperation? Maybe.
Sometimes the natural results of actions can serve as rewards. For instance, you might tell your child, “If you’re dressed and ready to go to school by 7:50, we’ll have time to play a game before the bus comes.” The connection, here, between the child’s actions and the outcome is obvious, logical, and easy to implement.
Rewards can be useful for getting-over-the-hump situations. If your child has a temporary illness that requires getting eye drops or taking nasty-tasting medicine, there’s no learning happening, so a sticker chart or other small reward might acknowledge the difficulty and help your child get through it.
Rewards may also be useful to gain cooperation with practice that will increase competence, such as memorizing math facts. There’s nothing fun about doing flashcards, but if they help your child feel more comfortable and confident about doing math homework, pairing the practice with a fun activity afterward may be worth it.
Unfortunately, rewards programs are often designed badly. Giving a reward first and expecting good behavior later is bribery, not reward, and it’s unlikely to be effective. Promising a huge reward, far away in time, for perfect behavior is a set-up for failure. Setting criteria that kids can’t meet is also demoralizing. I’ve seen more than a few “behavior mod charts” filled with frowny faces. Rather than reward systems, these end up being proof of the child’s “badness,” which is never helpful.
If you choose to use rewards, you can minimize possible negative impacts by:
- Keeping rewards small, achievable, and close in time to the desired behavior
- Focusing on non-tangible rewards, such as an extra privilege or doing something fun
- Offering them as a surprise celebration of accomplishment rather than a bargaining tool beforehand
- Using them sparingly, so your child isn’t constantly barraged with bargaining opportunities or a sense of being controlled
However, our goal in raising our children is more than compliance. We want them to be able to do the right thing even when we’re not around to hand out rewards.
Alternatives to Rewards
Fortunately, there are many alternatives to encourage children’s positive behavior that don’t involve explicit reward systems. Here are a few:
1. Offer descriptive praise and express genuine appreciation.
Children generally want to please their parents. Civilization depends on this! When we express genuine delight or appreciation for something our kids have done, we communicate our values. It’s easy to notice when our kids misbehave, but it can take conscious effort to catch them being good. Comments such as, “It was kind of you to let your brother use your crayons,” “You worked hard on that, and your effort really shows!” or “Thanks for helping me match the socks. That was a big help!” make kids feel competent and also convey important feedback. Acknowledging progress, rather than holding out for perfection, is also important.
2. Give a choice or an explanation.
Sometimes the best way to encourage children’s cooperation is to give them a sense of choice. For instance, you could let your child select between two acceptable options, such as: “Do you want to brush your teeth before or after you put on your pajamas?” If you can’t offer a choice, you may be able to get your child’s buy-in by offering a rationale that makes sense to your child. This could reflect someone else’s needs (“We need to leave now, because Grandma is waiting for us”) or your child’s future state (“Pack your lunch now, so you have time to make a lunch that you like, and we’re not rushing in the morning”).
3. Set the stage for success.
Preventing difficulties is usually easier than dealing with a problem after it happens. Daily routines (“Backpacks go on the shelf”), warnings about transitions (“Do your last thing, then we have to leave the park”), or planning ahead to manage challenging situations (“Let’s bring a snack in case the game runs late”) can make it easier for kids to do the right thing.
4. Model cooperation and make it fun.
Getting kids to listen doesn’t have to be stern and serious. “Let’s do it together” is easier for kids to embrace than “Go do it by yourself!” If you have a pleasant or playful attitude about a task, your child is more likely to catch the spirit.
5. Encourage problem-solving.
When a situation is routinely difficult, having a conversation with your child about what might help can be very useful. Your child might have good suggestions about how to solve the problem. Learning to weigh various concerns and options is an important life skill, and your child will feel empowered if you’re able to say, “Your solution is working!”
6. Describe feelings.
Often the best reward for doing the right thing is the satisfaction we feel from doing it. After a positive action, you can draw your child’s attention to these feelings by making comments such as, “It feels good to try your hardest and do your best!” or “You get a warm glow inside when you know you’ve done the right thing!”
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Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125(6), 627-668.
Deci, E. L., Ryan, R. M., & Koestner, R. (2001). The Pervasive Negative Effects of Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation: Response to. Review of Educational Research, 71(1), 43-51.
Lepper, M. R., Greene, D., & Nisbett, R. E. (1973). Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test of the” overjustification” hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 28(1), 129-137.