What’s wrong with rewards?

Many parents find it hard to see what could possibly be wrong with using rewards, such as stickers or point systems, to encourage good behaviour in their children.  It is often referred to as ‘positive parenting’ – surely an accepted method of teaching children good behaviour, much better than punishments etc.

The fact is, rewards and punishments are really just two sides of the same coin; the parent provides an external motivator in order to manipulate the child into behaving the way they would like them to.

One major problem with rewards is that they provide extrinsic motivation.  This is the type of motivation that is unrelated to the behaviour, an external something that’s in it for the child.  I’ll tidy up so I can get that chocolate.  Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, comes from within.  I’ll tidy up because it’s good to have a tidy room; it saves toys from being broken or people from tripping over them.  Clearly the intrinsic motivation is the one we want our child to have.  Some may think that providing the extrinsic motivator of the chocolate initially will then lead to the intrinsic motivation eventually.  Wrong.  Numerous psychological studies have shown quite the opposite; the provision of extrinsic motivation actually reduces intrinsic motivation.  Any real commitment to the task or behaviour is obliterated by the external motivator.  The child does not learn to be considerate or responsible, they do not develop a long-term commitment to the task, they simply learn to do something out of self interest.

Other forms of bribery, such as promising a child an ice cream if they ‘behave’ at the dentist, fail to address a child’s fears and feelings.  It may feel like we’re just giving them a well earned treat, but really we’re just brushing an issue under the carpet.  They won’t stop being afraid of the dentist, they’ll just learn that their feelings are not valid or acceptable and should be suppressed.

Rewards may produce the desired behaviour in the short term, but they have not taught our children what we may have intended to teach them, they may have forced an underlying problem into another area, and they also teach children to do something only when there’s something in it for them, that bribery’s OK, and worst, that they are only accepted and loved when they behave the way we want them to.

Rewards don’t develop a healthy parent/child relationship.  Co-operation comes from a genuine bond of love, respect and trust.

2 Responses to What’s wrong with rewards?

  1. Kat Hamill says:

    This is great stuff. I do have a few questions though? I have been doing what ou described as ‘positive parenting’, rewarding the behaviour I do want to see. I like natural consequences to be the ‘negative’ effect of something. Ie, putting away pens with lids on so they don’t break and dry out etc.
    I love the idea of doing away with the rewarding system, but I’m having trouble seeing how to integrate it into my ‘system’ of parenting. How does it look like when we (myself and 3yr old and 1 yr old girls) go to the supermarket, for instance? At the moment, I’m likely to talk about what we are about to do, how I would like her to behave and why, how she can help me by choosing the fruit etc etc etc. and then we’ll talk about how if she’s got her listening ears on, then on the way out, we can go sit on the play cars. (she actually doesn’t yet know they move. Shhhh!) it does seem to work, but a few times she hasn’t really cared whether or not she goes on the cars, so her behaviour deteriorates, she ‘loses’ the reward, and then I feel there is no motivation.
    As I’m writing this, I’m seeing how this just doesn’t fit into the no rewarding system, but am struggling to see how it would play out otherwise. Do I just relegate supermarket shopping to evenings after the girls are in bed? Do I learn when to just give it up, or perhaps not even try it to start off with?
    I like to think that I am definitely using the right wording to connect, ie ‘let’s have a chat, I can see that has made you sad, can you see how they are feeling?’ etc etc etc. so, I’m hoping this won’t be too hard to slot in! Thanks heaps

    • Jo says:

      I think you’re right to consider giving up going to the supermarket with your children where possible. Supermarkets are a classic example of having to deal with difficult behaviour for good reason – it is a very difficult situation for a child. I do the bulk of my supermarket shopping online! When you do have to go though, I would still promise the play cars, but don’t make them conditional on behaviour.

      There’s not really a quick or easy replacement for using rewards in these sort of situations. It’s just about having lots of strategies, realistic expectations, and empathy. It sounds like you have much of this already.

      Have you seen this post? It lists most of my main strategies.

      Also, in one of her posts about rewards, Kelly Bartlett includes the suggestion that if the kids love their sticker charts you can let them become child led. I’ve never tried this but it sounds like a good idea.

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