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Why We Need to Rethink Rewards

Great article about being cautious about using rewards with children.Do you have some sort of reward system in place for chores?  Do you reward yourself when you lose a certain amount of weight or work out every day for a week? Do you pay your kids for good grades, or take them for ice cream if they read a certain number of books? When my boys were playing baseball, I knew a parent who paid their kids if they hit a home run. Perhaps you give your child a treat if they finish their veggies, or a reward when they finish their math.

Rewards are an odd thing. We’ve probably all used them at one time or another. You’ve probably read articles about using rewards to help establish new habits or change behavior.  The thing is, offering rewards can actually sabotage your efforts, and they should be used with caution and intention.

I’ve always been leery of rewards and have seen a great deal of negatives when rewards are overused. Let’s examine a few instances to see the danger.

First warning: Be careful you do not use rewards in such a way, that your children feel entitled to be rewarded for performing everyday tasks. 

Great explanations of how to properly use reward systems

The chore reward system, there are so many of these. Kids put up stickers as they do their chores and earn a reward or money at the end of the week. In others, kids start out with a certain amount of money and if they don’t finish their chores, money is deducted from their ‘allowance’. In still others parents post jobs they want done with a dollar value attached and children can choose which chores they want to do to earn spending money. You can probably come up with many more.

In our house, every member of the family did some of the work, because we are a family. There were regular chores the boys did every morning, and on the weekends there was yard work or cars to wash. I didn’t pay the boys for these things because they are part of the family and once they were old enough, they took on some of the responsibility and work to keep our home going.

When I knew one of them was trying to save money for something (usually another musical instrument) I might offer to pay them for some work, but that wasn’t the norm. They were never compensated for their regular chores.

I think I tried the pay system once or twice but abandoned the idea quickly because it led to an attitude of entitlement. It seemed that those systems quickly sent the message that they should be reimbursed for every contribution they made…and that wasn’t going to work for me.

I didn’t want to send boys out into the world who expected others (especially their wives) to pick up after them, cook for them, or do all the laundry. And I didn’t want them to think that when they did do some normal household chores they should be patted on the back as if they had gone above and beyond. I wanted to send out men who knew how to pull their weight, knew that living with others means being part of a team.

Warning number two: Ask yourself if rewarding a behavior is sending a mixed message and undermining the very habit you are trying to develop.

Another common scenario, you are trying to get your child to eat healthy but they refuse all vegetables, so you promise them a treat later if they finish their vegetables at dinner. Perhaps you’ve used a similar tactic on yourself when trying to drink enough water or cut out sugar. If I eat a salad with lunch I will reward myself with a piece of chocolate.

This sort of reward system runs the risk of send the message to your child that eating vegetables is sooo bad, you have to reward them for it. Even when you use this method on yourself there is the risk of that thought bouncing around. “Who would eat salad voluntarily, I need an incentive to do this.”

On one level we are trying to reinforce a new habit, on another level we are sending the message that this habit is so hard, bad, or unappetizing we need to be rewarded for doing it.

Would having kids grow vegetables, help in the preparation of vegetables, or experimenting with new ways of preparing them be a more effective strategy for raising healthy eaters.

Last warning: Assess if you are developing an unhealthy dependence on external motivations.

So what about those parents who rewarded a child for hitting a home run? Or paid kids for good grades?.

When a child plays sports, generally scoring a goal is so fun that the idea of adding a reward seems silly. When we learn new material and get a good grade on a test, that is pretty satisfying. When a child can swing from bar to bar at the park for the first time, they will make you watch over and over again because they have such a strong sense of accomplishment.

So why would adding a reward to these things be bad?

Feeling satisfaction when we master a difficult concept, feeling a sense of accomplishment when we FINALLY are able to do something we’ve been working on, gaining confidence that we can try hard things because we’ve done it before…experiencing those positive feelings provides our children with healthy internal motivations.

When we start paying a child for learning to hit a baseball, a subtle shift takes place. We establish a pattern that makes our child unhealthily dependent on external motivations.

In it’s extreme form these kids only learn something if it’s going to be on the test, doing the minimum they can to get the grade they want. These kids often grow into adults who lack the internal drive to follow through on hard goals, or to do any more work than the bare minimum. They are always on the look out for a shortcut that will pay big.

Far better to have children and adults alike who find personal satisfaction in doing their best, even if no one notices.

So when should you use a reward, when it will drive your child deeper into the habit you are trying to develop.

When we are trying to develop good habits and patterns in our children’s lives, we want to use all of the tools we have available. I’m not opposed to rewards in every situation, but their use needs to be intentional and reasonable.

One positive use of a reward is to use it to drive your child deeper into the habit you are trying to develop. If you are trying to encourage your child to read, reward them with a gift card to Barnes and Noble. If you are teaching them to eat healthy and they achieve a goal, sign them up for a cooking class, or buy a new kitchen tool. Reward their progress with something that will further their development in that area.

Rewards are subtlety different than celebrating an achievement…we can all use a little more celebrating in our lives.

While this might appear contradictory, I also think it’s important to celebrate your child’s accomplishments.  Often the difference between using a reward and celebrating a success is subtle.  Offering $10 for hitting a home run can be different than taking your child out for an ice cream to celebrate a hard won victory.

It’s important to notice when your child makes progress, to let them know that you noticed. Reinforcing their sense of accomplishment and letting them know you are proud of their hard work is important. Often that verbal acknowledgement is all that is needed, but sometimes a little celebrating is in order. Each child and situation is different. But I wouldn’t want to leave you with the impression that all rewards are a negative because they’re not.

Sometimes we get so caught up in life, in getting to the next item on our agenda, we don’t take time to celebrate the small victories. We need to make time. When we allow our kids to stop for a bit and really enjoy feeling accomplished and successful we make a stronger connection between that feeling and the work it took to get there. We want to establish and strengthen the connection between hard work, perseverance and reaching a goal. Taking the time to stop and celebrate can provide that reinforcement.

Use wisdom, and your knowledge of your child to make intentional choices about when to use rewards. Be aware of the backlash that over using rewards can cause. As parents, we need all the tools we can gather to help us get this job of parenting done well…but we want to use those tools wisely.

If you want to check out the other similar mistakes we can easily fall into here are a few more in this series.

Curriculm is a tool, nothing more

The key to raising a reader that most parents miss

When reading FOR your child is your best tool for raising a reader

Making the paradigm shift Save







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