How do you reward your kids?
When they do something without even being asked, do they get a toy to add to their collection? How about a new video game, or a dollar here and there?
All of the above methods have something in common: They reward kids with money or material goods. Obviously, this kind of reward can get expensive. But less obvious are the problems it can cause for your children both now and for their future success.
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We spoke to experts and parents to figure out exactly what’s so wrong about buying your child’s cooperation—and what to do, if not that.
The Problem With External Rewards
“When children primarily seek external rewards, they develop the potential to pick and choose what they are willing to do,” explains Liz Rampy M.Ed., LPCI, a kindergarten teacher and therapist. “They can quickly become complacent with the prizes offered, and often expect to receive larger rewards for doing the same thing. Even very young children are capable of asking a version of, ‘What’s in it for me if I do this?,’ or ‘I did this, now what do I get?’”
By all accounts, when kids get too used to external motivation, it can damage their ability to self-motivate, a skill that serves them well as adults. And in fact, studies have shown that internal motivation is much more powerful than any other kind.
One famous example of this concept is the Magic Marker Study from the 1970s. Researchers had children who liked markers draw pictures either for rewards, for nothing or for a surprise reward that they didn’t expect. The group drawing for a reward showed lessening interest in the markers during free play periods, and even produced lower-quality drawings than the control and surprise group. It seems that knowing they would be rewarded worked against the children, and even made something they had previously loved less fun.
Don’t get us wrong–we aren’t ignoring the ease brought about by a well-placed reward. (Fine, a bribe.) The question is, how can we get those same results, while still fostering internal motivation in our children?
We dug around for some ideas.
1. Set Expectations
Not every correct behavior should be celebrated–often, it should just be expected that a child contribute to the household. According to Jennifer Little, Ph.D. from the parenting site Parents Teach Kids, one way to establish expected behaviors is to use the word “when” instead of “if” to eliminate the idea that your child has the option to not do something.
Dr. Little explains, “Using the word ‘when’ sets up logical and natural consequences: When you pick up your clothes and put them in the laundry, then you can get clean clothes the next day. When you put the dirty dishes in the sink after breakfast, then you can have lunch.”
2. Pay Attention to Clues
“Some children are motivated by gifts, but other children are motivated by one-on-one time, a hug or pat on the back or even hearing your praise,” says Tara Kennedy-Kline of the parenting site Multilevel Mom. “Begin by paying attention to how your child praises you or shows you they love you. Do they snuggle in your lap and give you giant bear hugs? Do they ask you to play with them or go for walks? Do they perform chores and tasks for you, like make your bed or surprise you with a clean bedroom? These are all ways your child is showing you how they want to be rewarded for the good things they do.”
3. Be Specific
A high five and a “good job” may be a good start, but the most effective praise is specific. Candi Wingate, President of Care4Hire, explains: “If the positive feedback has been phrased, ‘Good job, Susie,’ said while pointing at a paper where Susie wrote the alphabet, Susie may be unclear if she’s being praised for finishing a task, not making a mess with her crayons or something else. If she isn’t clear about what she did well, she won’t know what to do right next time.”
4. Focus on Experiences
If you’re looking for a more extravagant but less monetary way to reward your child without spending, use experiences rather than gifts. “Things like a special play date, your child’s choice of a family movie, a fun bath with colorful soap and bath paint, building a pillow fort or an afternoon baking cupcakes can be just the reward they need,” says psychotherapist Barbara Neitlich, LCSW.
5. Have Them Earn It
Sometimes a genuine thank you and a hug just isn’t going to cut it. “We are all motivated by external rewards at times,” says Rampy. “It’s unrealistic to avoid them entirely. However, children should have an opportunity to earn them over a period of time. For example, a parent may keep a sticker chart. Children are told what is expected, and when they complete the task without being asked, they receive a sticker. When the predetermined number of stickers is reached, the child may receive a small reward, like going out for ice cream after a week of making his bed.”
Tell us–what reward system do you have in place for your child?