Why Rewarding Kids is Important.

A core element of my work with children involves motivation for change. Thankfully, a good number of the children I work with in therapy are motivated to a certain degree, but there are inevitable moments in any child’s road to progress when they encounter some combination of emotional discomfort, boredom, apathy, or just plain forgetfulness. In moments like these, children need an extra little nudge, an incentive to push through the ickiness, and come out on the other side of good habit and positive behavior.

The “nudge” described above often takes the form of nagging. It’s probably no coincidence that nudge and nag sound so similar. A parent can feel like a nag, nudging their child on the path to a cleaner bedroom floor. One useful alternative and solution is a reward or incentive. Study after study confirms that the “carrot works better than the stick.” Whether it is children or employees, people are more motivated to work harder by a reward than a threat of penalty. Thus, positive feedback, rewards, and incentives make good sense.

But, what about the critics who argue that rewarding good behavior is just another form of bribery, locking children into a dependence on getting goodies for good behavior? In an ideal world, children would be intrinsically motivated to please their parents and other adults in their life and grow as an individual. However, there are many competing forces (e.g., screen time and technologies, emotional distress, etc.) that can interfere in a child’s decision about whether to engage in positive pro-social behavior. Motivation to please varies by developmental stage, but one constant is a child’s desire to experience and acquire the feel-good benefits of a chosen experience, time with family or friends, or a new toy.

So, yes, there is an exchange of behavior for reward that occurs, but I argue that this exchange is not rooted in bribery, but rather in the age-old system that has moved people for centuries. As adults, we engage in work because, hopefully, we experience some enjoyment in the activity, but we also perform our job for the paycheck. Few people consider a paycheck a form of bribery because bribery has roots in corruption, which neither paychecks or a well-executed reward system contains.

Hopefully, you are convinced that rewards and incentives are worth exploring to inspire positive change in your child’s behavior. In that case, below are some principles for managing rewards and incentives in your home:

1. Work with your child to choose a reward or set of rewards that is compelling and motivating. You know your child well, and you can likely anticipate what they will be gunning for, but it is always beneficial to involve children in the process and afford them more ownership. 

2. Ditto for the actual skill or activity that your child is working on. They should have some buy-in before beginning. They should have some level of commitment and agreement to the arrangement.

3.  The reward system should be tangible, consistent, and immediate. Yes, yes, I’m sure that many of you have already tried chore charts or behavior plans with limited success. If I were a betting woman (I happened to meet my husband playing poker!), I would guess that you have struggled with the set-up and consistent maintenance of an effective behavior plan. It can be difficult for the beginner, but once you are rolling, voila! 

Did I mention the importance of consistency? I did? Ok, I want to mention it again. Stay consistent, and you will discover the power of positive reinforcement, rewards, and incentives in your child’s behavior.

By Laura C. Kauffman, Ph.D.
Licensed Psychologist