To reward or not to reward…that is the question

photo by terren in Virginia via Flickr

“In regard to increasing motivation… I hear so much conflicting advice! And granted, this is all just advice and you have to do what you think best for your own child. But you suggest offering rewards for good behavior, yet many studies suggest that gives the child a sense of entitlement for doing something simple that should just be done without fanfare. And that later in life they expect rewards for showing up to work. Can you explain this disconnect?”

This comment recently posted on the BehaviorBandAid Facebook page portrays an unfortunate but understandable confusion about when and how to reinforce/reward your child’s behavior.

There are quite a few other “experts” and “studies” out there that are very strongly stated about the “side effects” of praising your children or rewarding them for their behavior. I will cite the origin of this quote only to show you I’m not making this up, but can you believe this statement?

“Parents need to stop praising their children. Yeah, No more! You must shut your mouth! Be quiet. Zip it. Stop Talking! All of that praise you have been heaping on your child is doing more harm than good…“I’m so proud of you!” Those are words that should not fly from your lips.”

“More harm than good?”

The major thing these articles have in common is they clearly and consistently do NOT understand positive reinforcement.

What you need to know about praise and rewards:

1. Praise your child’s behavior when he or she does something you want to see more of in the future. PERIOD. It matters.

How? Be specific. Tell her exactly what she did that excites you:

“You got all your dolls in a row on the dresser! Thank you.”

“You got dressed all by yourself this morning! Good job!”

“You ate all your carrots today! Yeah!”

2. Be differential in what you praise. Giving everything a “good job” does potentially reduce the value of the “good job” over time. You need to be specific in your praise for it to have an effect on the behavior. Read this post too, if you think your “good job stinks.”

Just remember…praise the behavior, not just the kid.

3. As for tangibles and edibles, I do believe there is a place for using these as special, planned and unplanned, reinforcers or rewards for exceptional behavior. What I am NOT saying is to use these as bribes: ways to get something when the kid has already refused (read the previous post on the difference between rewards and bribery).

For example,

Parent: “Clean up your dishes please”

Child: “I want to go play”

Parent: “I will give you some chocolate if you clean up your dishes”

Child: “OK…then can I play?”

If you do this, you are teaching your kid to refuse the request, just to get a better deal. This IS a problem. This will become problematic, but it is not a problem with positive reinforcement or praise. That is like saying there is a problem with a hammer because you hit your finger instead of the nail.

4. Access to activities and special treats should be planned and used dependent on very specifically detailed criteria. I have written about using daily access to video games or TV time based on completion of daily chores and homework.

What if they start expecting something for everything?

If you do it correctly, they will not. However, if they do say something like, “I will do it if I can get a piece of cake,” then you have probably wandered into bribery land. But, all is not lost…guess what you need to say?

“Nope. I asked you to clean up your room. Let’s go.”

Bargaining is not a side effect of positive reinforcement. It is a side effect of positive reinforcement being used incorrectly.

Hope this helps

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9 thoughts on “To reward or not to reward…that is the question

  1. Pingback: Are you begging your child to cooperate? |

  2. I agree there is a time to praise your child and to give rewards, but when it comes to their everyday chores they should just do them with out being bribed.

    • In some ways, I agree. However, reinforcement is not “bribery” (see http://bit.ly/17CtDi0) and if your child is NOT doing chores, then it might be that time to praise and reward for doing parts of it (See http://bit.ly/OOdAn4). The real question is how do we teach our children that they “should” do their chores/homework/work/be nice to other people? You start by reinforcing the small things. After all, you SHOULD show up to work on time everyday and follow all the rules of the workplace, etc. Sometimes, though, it is nice to be recognized for it (even though you “should” be doing it).

      • I agree. How many people would go to work if they were not getting paid? And what about paid vacation/holidays, 401Ks, TSPs, Insurance benefits. These are all “rewards” at the work place. That’s not even mentioning performance bonuses. Sales people are always pushing to work extra hard if they know they get a bonus for outstanding performance. Reinforcement/reward systems are just part of our lives, period. Great article!

      • I have to agree with you about expectations and the bribery, after all when was the last time you went to work and kept going and did not get the pay check, right.

  3. I agree with the post I think that it is great to use positive reinforcements when dealing with children because sometimes they may think that they should be rewarded for everything that they do so you have to make them understand that they get rewarded for some things that they do and not everything.

  4. Great advices! please people, understand, even at work, we like to hear from our bosses what we are doing right or wrong and to be encouraged on what we do the best (behavior specific reinforcement). Secondly, would you go back to work if you are working for more than three moths without any pay? Ask yourself if you don’t need any kind of recognition… Are you being bribed?

  5. Yes, reinforcement is necessary but remember this child is not fully mature as yet. As parents we must consider that children are at their development stage where they should be commended positively and immediately for completing chores with positive word and not to be rewarded gifts. For example, you took the garbage out without been told! Good job. We are helping them to development into responsible and productive adults. Not as someone who will look for rewards every time they done some exceptional.

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