The expectation of reward for good behavior

A comment I frequently get when talking about rewarding behavior is, “won’t he just learn to expect some kind of reward for everything?” Another version of this is, “well, if I do that, then she won’t she always ask for something in return?”

My answer? NO, and it does not really matter at this point anyway. This is especially true if you are working on changing a problem behavior.

A personal story
One of the things we have worked on in our house is “accepting it,” which basically means, “don’t freak out if something does not go your way.”

So, to do that, we started praising and specifically rewarding when our kids “accept it.” Also, occasionally, we reward calm “acceptance” with what they wanted in the first place. For example, if we told our son to turn the computer off and he did so without doing the bouncy, whiny thing (or some version of protest), we would say, “dude…thank you for accepting it and closing the computer. You can have more time on the computer now that you accepted that.”

Fast forward to a few weeks ago when he accepted something that was a pretty big deal. I cannot remember exactly what it was, but I was happy how he accepted it. He turned to me and said,

“so, since I accepted it, can I keep playing it?”

There was also another time soon after that when he said,

“since I did good, can I have a treat?”

Am I worried about that becoming a pattern? Good gracious, no.

Do I think he will start manipulating the situation so he only does something if there is something “in it for him?” Nope. Does not cross my mind.

Do I sometimes give him the treat or let him keep playing? Sometimes. (We actually have a rule that you don’t get a reward if you ask for it…but that’s another story).

First things first…I am pretty happy when I have focused on teaching a certain behavior and it begins to occur more and more, even if I have to heap praise, high fives and some extra time with the computer on top of it. The more the behavior occurs, the less I will have to reward it. The behavior is occurring, at least, and I can fade out the rewards as time goes on.

Second, if your child says he will only do it if he gets a treat, that’s ok. Do not get into a back and forth with him about it. I would suggest waiting until he wants to do something or asks for something and then you say, “well, you need to ______, then you can have/do that.” Do not get cranked up about it…it really does not mean a whole lot at this point other than the fact he has caught on to the fact that he does something for you and it can benefit him in some way (not a bad lesson to learn anyway).

So, if you are somehow worried that your child will only behave because there is a piece of candy or extra time playing games at the end of the good behavior, worry not! They are kids. You can worry about “intrinsic motivation” or “doing it because they should” later.

Is your plan for your child’s behavior working? Are you sure??

When thinking about something you are doing to help stop a certain behavior or encourage another one, ask yourself a very simple question:

“are you doing more of that something, or less?”

The answer will tell you if your “plan” is working.

This might sting a little, so hold on with me…this is important. Continue reading

“Intrinsic motivation?” Part 2

Photo by Michael Bentley via Flickr

Embrace the M&Ms and worry about “intrinsic motivation” later.

Last week, I wrote a pretty lengthy response to a question about whether parents should praise and reward their kids for everyday things. Since then, I continue to see articles written about the subject with people talking about the “harmful” side effects of praising our kids. Unreal! Continue reading

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. Continue reading

The Competition of Motivation


I could not have been more than 4 years old at the time and riding in the back of a hot baby blue Oldsmobile station wagon, skin sticking to the seat. Laying down, I pretended I was asleep. I was on the way to “swimming lessons” taught by the local guy who dressed up like a clown and was well known for throwing kids off the diving board, and I did not want to go. My mom carried me in though, not falling for my failed attempt at a snoring sound. Next thing you know I was on the end of a diving board with the clown from some Steven King novel more frightened by him than by the water (although it was pretty close). It was horrifying.

Gasping for air and swimming to my mom who was socializing with her friends seemingly not caring about my fight with a clown, I survived. I was able to swim and to dive off the diving board. I received so much enjoyment out of that, everything was OK. I loved the water…I learned to water ski not long after that…there were so many things about being in and around water that did (and still do) motivate me, that those fateful steps off the plank were helpful.

Motivation is a strange thing. We talk about it very freely…

“He’s just not motivated today…”

“I can’t seem to get motivated”

“Her motivation is different than mine”

We often do things we truly do not want to do because other “motivations” are stronger than our desire to avoid what we are doing. There is always a competition of motivations.

For example, I don’t necessarily like cleaning the dishes after dinner. However, I do it (sometimes).

My motivations are generally to:

a) make my wife happy,

b) get the mess out of the way so we don’t have to live in a roach infested dungeon 

c) I don’t want someone to unexpectedly come over and see that we are a bunch of lazy slobs.  

Therefore, I do the dishes. Those things won the motivation competition. I am sure you can think of a variety of things that you do (maybe even every day) that you don’t necessarily enjoy, but you do because there are OTHER motivations involved that overpower your drive to avoid the work and sit on your couch eating bon-bons.

But, just like the diving board, it was not always that way. I had not built the social motivation for doing those things. When I lived at home as a kid, I could care less if people thought my parents or I was a slob. I had to be motivated in other ways when I was that age.

We cannot avoid this constant battle of competing motivations when thinking about how our kids operate and behave.

I think parents often think the most powerful motivation for our children is the motivation to make us (their parents) happy and possibly to avoid us being mad at them. I gotta be honest…at younger ages this is pretty weak. But, we rely on it so much. One day, hopefully.

Should we teach our kids to do things they do not want to do to build an understanding of selflessness and duty to others? Yes. Should we rain Skittles and M&Ms every time they pick up their socks when we ask them to? NO. Should we teach them the social, environmental and safety reasons for listening to their parents despite their stronger desires? Absolutely.

It is all in how we get there 

If we teach our kids to be motivated by the avoidance or escape from discomfort (i.e. FEAR), you run the risk of setting up false or undesirable motivations: “I will do it, but only because I dont want to get yelled at.” That gets in the way of stronger motivations that can be the result of pushing your kid through something they don’t initially like.

We need to attribute positive reinforcers and positive experiences with doing those things that will, one day, be motivated by the “natural consequences” of their behavior. These social reinforcers are built over time…its your job to create them as powerful forces. Doing so through force and anger will not get you there and could result in damaging results later.