Are Rewards Really Helping Your Child?


How many times have we said to a child: “If you do this, I’ll give you that?” We use rewards regularly to shape child behavior. If the child does what’s asked, mission accomplished, right? Not so fast.

The problem with rewards is that if they aren’t used properly, they can produce the results we want short-term - making us think they’re working - but in reality they may actually be decreasing the likelihood that the child will willingly engage in the behavior long-term.

In the book, “Punished by Rewards” by Alfie Kohn, he draws on hundreds of studies that outline the shortcomings of rewards and how they can negatively impact child behavior. He explains that rewards aren’t much different in effect than punishment: while punishment gets results with force, rewards get results with seduction—they’re two sides of the same coin.

For example, there was a study involving 4th and 5th graders playing with games. The children were rewarded for playing with some of the games and not rewarded for playing with others. When the rewards started, the children gravitated toward the games they were being rewarded for playing. But when the rewards ended, the children became even less interested in those games than the children who were never rewarded in the first place.

A major issue with using rewards improperly with children is that the more we use artificial inducements to control their behavior, the more they’ll lose interest in what we want them to do. As Kohn says, “the more you want what has been dangled in front of you, the more you may come to dislike whatever you have to do to get it.”

And the more rewards are used to motivate children, the more they’re needed to continue to encourage the behavior. It’s like a drug. If you give Johnny chocolate every time he practices piano for a few weeks in a row, you think he’s going to continue to want to play piano when there’s no more chocolate?

Also, rewards tend to be perceived by children as controlling. Autonomy is a significant factor in whether an individual will enjoy an activity. The less autonomy a child has, the less motivated the child will be to engage in the activity.

Rewards also discourage children from putting forth more effort or going the extra step. When a child is working for a reward, the child tends to do just enough to get the reward, and no more. That’s because the real goal is to get the reward, not to improve ability or do the task well.

Surprisingly even praise can be harmful. It’s important to encourage your child, but you have to be careful how you do it. Like any other reward, praise becomes problematic when the child is engaging in the behavior primarily to get praise, rather than doing it because it’s beneficial.

The main factor in this ironic twist that rewards can be harmful is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is motivation coming from within. Whereas extrinsic motivation comes from outside: the child wants to do something either to avoid punishment or get a reward.

Rewards reduce intrinsic motivation, which is most important in shaping behavior, especially long-term. When using rewards improperly, the child does not develop a desire to do or enjoy the behavior you’re aiming to encourage. Instead, the child reasons, “I need to do this annoying thing in order to get what I really want (the reward).” The behavior you’re trying to encourage becomes an obstacle rather than an activity the child wants to repeat and improve upon and enjoy.

Rewards are convenient because we can ignore the problem. If the child is engaging in a negative behavior, instead of exploring why and addressing the root cause, we offer a reward to quickly change the behavior. But in doing that, we ignore the real problem.

If rewarding indiscriminately is not the solution, what is?

The key to effectively shaping a child’s behavior long-term is activating intrinsic motivation: to guide the child toward engaging in the behavior for internal rewards that are naturally satisfying instead of doing it out of fear of punishment or for a reward unconnected to the activity.

The goal is to work with the child to understand the root cause of negative behavior and why certain behaviors are preferable to others; explain to the child why specific rules are important and why it’s in the child’s best interest to engage in the positive behavior and explain how that will benefit the child; and set clear and reasonable goals and potential consequences with the child instead of imposing arbitrary rules. (Who has time for this?)

The key is for the child to have some degree of control and understanding of why certain behaviors are preferable to others and how the positive behavior benefits the child - not how it benefits you.

And not all rewards are bad. When using rewards, you should give them when they’re unexpected so that the child is not deliberately trying to obtain them. This increases the odds that the positive behavior is actually encouraged rather than becoming something the child has to do to achieve the ultimate goal of getting the reward.

When praising a child, it’s best to praise the activity or progress rather than labeling the child. “Nice job putting some of the pieces together on this puzzle,” rather than “You’re so smart.” Also, the more specific the praise, the better because it focuses the child on the activity or task, rather than on the verbal reward.

The goal is to use the least coercive strategy possible. As mentioned in the book, “Don’t move a child roughly if you can move her gently; don’t move her gently if you can tell her to move; don’t tell her to move if you can ask her.”

All of this is admittedly easier said than done. I have two little girls, ages 8 & 6. I can’t tell you how many times since I’ve read this book that I’ve bribed them to get them to do what I want. We’re all busy, we all have a million things to do. We need results now, and we can get them now with rewards. But at least we know the potential long-term consequences of our decisions.

Taking the time to teach and involve the child in decision-making and firing up their intrinsic motivation takes more time and patience, but it can yield positive long-lasting results.