Can Rewards be used Effectively with Children?
Some parents don’t believe in using rewards to shape or bring about appropriate behavior. Denise is one of those parents. Her reasons for being opposed to the use of rewards are fairly typical.
“Children should do things because they want to or because it’s the right thing to do,” Denise says. “Furthermore, kids will expect a reward every time if you start giving them something in order to get them to do the right things.”
Almost everything she says could be true. That is, children “should” do things because they want to. For example, your children should do their chores at home because they want to contribute to the family. And children should do other things because it’s the right thing to do. For instance, they should do their homework not because they will get a reward but because they want to learn.
Finally, Denise voiced a common concern that kids will expect a reward every time they’re supposed to do something. That is a danger when you try using rewards. A boy I knew was getting rewarded for bringing in the trash cans on garbage pick-up day. His mother thought it was time he just did it because it was his chore. When he failed to bring the trash cans in, his mother reminded him. “What do I get if I bring them in?” he asked.
Admittedly, using rewards to encourage certain behaviors could have some drawbacks. However, there are ways to avoid these and make sure that rewards work for you as a parent and not against you.
There are three rules to keep firmly in mind if you plan to use rewards to bring about behaviors which aren’t occurring or are not occurring often enough.
1. Be clear about what you expect and the behavior you want strengthened.
This means that some thought should go into the use of rewards. It’s not a discipline technique to be used haphazardly. For instance, if you want to reduce the times your son hits his younger sister, it’s important to think about the behavior you wish to strengthen. “Not hitting your sister” is difficult to define and runs the risk of focusing your attention on the non-occurrence of an inappropriate behavior.
However, if the behavior you wish to reward is “cooperation with and kindness toward your sister,” then you may have an easier time deciding exactly what behavior should be rewarded. You actually do want to increase the times he is kind to his sister, and that can be observed – and rewarded.
2. Choose a reward in the form of a payoff or incentive that will be highly prized or desired by your child.
The cliché is to offer a child M & Ms as a reward for a good behavior. Unless you are trying to strengthen the behavior of a very young child, M & Ms are unlikely to motivate a lot of kids these days.
However, a privilege (an extra 30 minutes of television before bedtime), opportunity (riding a bike around the block), or activity (having a sleep-over with a friend) could be motivating to almost any child as long as you know what it is your child really likes. I encourage parents to use activities and privileges more often than tangible rewards because I think in the long run children value these more.
3. Give the reward or payoff only after the child has performed the desired appropriate or targeted behavior.
Edward wanted his son to get better at completing his homework. He promised his son, Jeff, more video game time if he completed his homework. However, Jeff often made excuses why he needed to play a video game before his homework was completed. Jeff was very good at making new deals with his dad.
“I need to finish the game now while I’m on a roll,” Jeff would say. “Then, I promise I’ll finish my homework.”
Of course, then there was another excuse as to why he couldn’t finish the work that night, but he always promised he would do his school work “first thing in the morning.”
When Edward caught on to this and insisted that there would be no video games until the work was completed, Jeff succeeded in showing his dad completed homework.