What’s wrong with rewards?

September 15, 2011

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.