As parents, we’ve all been there before: maybe it’s potty training or trying to get your child dressed in time for school. Perhaps you’ve offered a little treat—a sticker, a cookie or a trinket—for motivation. But what’s an appropriate reward? And are we raising little Connors and Maddies with a sense of entitlement?
While motivating children with incentives of money, toys or even a special activity can be very effective, some experts believe this prevents youngsters from developing their own sense of responsibility. Alfie Kohn, author of “Punished by Rewards,” believes that giving incentives—even nonmaterial ones—only serves to control youngsters. “While dangling extra TV, ice cream or story time in front of a child asks less of us,” Kohn says, “it can never get anything more than temporary obedience—and it buys even that at terrific cost.”
But not all experts agree. According to Dr. Virginia Shiller, a psychologist and instructor at the Yale Child Study Center and coauthor of the book Rewards for Kids, rewards can help parents teach their children new habits. Shiller says the key is in how the incentives are given; in setting appropriate, realistic goals; and in figuring out a strategy to achieve them. “I was inspired to write this book by my own parenting experience, and I’m happy to say my sons—now in their late 20s—are very responsible people,” says Shiller. “This is not purely behavioral modification. I’m much bigger on using it as a learning opportunity.”
Whether or not to offer rewards is a personal decision. Here are some tips to help your family:
>> How to Use Rewards Effectively
- Kids can begin to understand the concept of a reward around age three. Developmental age is just as important as chronological age. The main thing is that toddlers are past the stage in which they are locked into oppositional battles (“No! I don’t want ice cream!”).
- Make rewards fairly immediate. Younger kids may need more immediate goals, while older kids can understand working toward longer-term rewards. Incentives can be small, and they don’t need to be money or a toy. Even a trip to the library or park can be a treat.
- Use charts. A sticker can visually remind young children of their achievements. Or have fun and draw a scene and add stickers of trucks or animals to it.
- Set realistic, specific goals. Don’t try to change too many things at once. If you try to work on getting to school on time, being nice to siblings and cleaning up toys all at once, that’s too much. It’s better to target just one or two actions in a particular chart.
- Help your children reach their goals. Work with them to figure out how they’re going to achieve their goals. “If it’s a chart about getting out of the house in the morning, and they think, ‘I could find my shoes in the evening instead of a last-minute search for shoes,’ then they’re actually learning a strategy,” says Shiller. And don’t forget to take the opportunity to praise your child!
>> The Dangers of Rewards
- Leads to nagging. With a rewards system, the burden often falls on the parent to remind kids to do the necessary tasks. “After the first couple of weeks, it doesn’t work very well,” says Christine Carter, author of “Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents.” “If you are in this bribe, threat, nag cycle, then it’s not working. And the kids know it’s not working.”
- Could prevent children from developing a sense of “doing the right thing.” Psychologists refer to intrinsic motivation as the desire to do something based on enjoyment of the action itself, rather than on achieving an outcome or reward. “The type of reward doesn’t much matter,” says Kohn. “The problem is with the whole idea of carrot-and-stick control. More than 75 studies have shown that extrinsic and intrinsic motivation are not just different; they tend to be inversely related.”
>> If rewards are not working for your family, be flexible!
- Make sure there‘s not an underlying issue. For example, if your child has a strong resistance to going to school, you may want to look into whether there is an underlying problem, such as bullying or an undiagnosed learning problem.
- Rethink your requests. Are the tasks you’re asking of your child age-appropriate and beneficial? If they are, instead of trying to entice your child into doing things, spend time explaining the value of those actions. “First, we let kids know what’s important to us and why,” says Kohn. “Second, we engage children’s minds, helping them to reflect on—indeed, to wrestle with—moral questions.”
- Have a family meeting. If you have been using a rewards system and decide it’s not right for your family, hold a family meeting and explain to your kids that things can work differently around the house. “Know that they’re going to resist and it’s going to be horrible for a couple of weeks,” says Carter. “But if you’re consistent, eventually they will feel much more in touch with their own personal power and how much they contribute.”