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The perils of rewards

From Positive Parenting Solutions founder and TODAY Moms contributor, Amy McCready

Let’s admit it: some days it seems like our greatest challenges as parents aren’t the sleepless nights or busy carpool schedules—it’s getting our kids to do what we want them to do. Understandably, many of us resort to using rewards, whether we’re offering a cookie to any child who cleans her plate or promising concert tickets for good grades.

But it’s not just parents who use rewards to motivate good behavior or minimize negative behavior—we also see stickers in the doctor’s office, lollipops at the bank, and for grown-ups, punch cards at our local coffee shop.

“We dangle goodies (from candy bars to sales commissions) in front of people in the same way that we train the family pet,” aptly comments Alfie Kohn in his book, "Punished by Rewards."

Unfortunately, what would seem like a great strategy for coaxing little ones to behave actually falls flat.

In the New York Times Best Selling book "DRIVE – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us," author Daniel Pink shares The Seven Deadly Flaws of Carrots (Rewards) and Sticks (Punishment).  According to Daniel Pink, 50 years of behavioral research proves that “carrots and sticks” can extinguish intrinsic motivation; diminish performance; crush creativity; crowd out good behavior; encourage cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behavior; become addictive and foster short-term thinking.

Ouch! Why is this? For one, by offering rewards we let our kids know that we lack confidence in their willingness or ability to behave or perform a task without a reward. And when used consistently, rewards become a means to an end so that children will never tinkle in the potty or empty the dishwasher without the promise of a treat.

What’s more, rewards offer external motivation rather than internal motivation. They may seem like an easy “fix” in the short-term, but over time they lose their luster and also erode a child’s sense of personal satisfaction in such things as reading a book, learning to play piano or being kind to a little sibling.

In fact, a growing body of research shows that rewards actually diminish a child’s interest in the desired behavior: the more that “desirable” behaviors are rewarded, the less interest children show in whatever they are being bribed to do.  Children who were once intrinsically motivated to do something eventually lost interest in those tasks in which an external reward was offered. Instead of intrinsic satisfaction that comes from accomplishing something new or seeing the smile on a sibling’s face, the behavior is associated with the external reward, or the “goodie.”

Why is this important? While external motivation would leave our kids relying on rewards for good deeds or constant praise, internal motivation will successfully guide them through the years to come—with school, careers and relationships.

So, how do you get your kids to do what you want them to, without using rewards?

For starters, you develop their sense of internal motivation by using training, encouragement and consequences.

  1. Take time For training. Make it a priority to fully teach your kids the appropriate behavior, or the right way to complete a task. Not only will they get a huge boost of pride in their new accomplishment, they’ll also be more likely to do the right thing in the future. 
  2. Use encouragement. Encourage your kids by letting them know that their contributions make a difference, or that you notice their growing independence. For instance, you can say “Wow, I used to have to help you on the potty and now you’re doing it all by yourself!” or “Thanks for emptying the dishwasher—now all the dishes are ready for supper!” or “Your hard work has really improved your math skills this semester!”
  3. Employ consequences when necessary. Of course, kids will still misbehave from time to time, and if they do you can implement fair and effective consequences to help them understand the real effects of negative behavior.

By focusing on training and encouragement and using consequences for poor choices, you can avoid relying on rewards when addressing your kids’ behavior. In doing so, you’ll develop the internal motivation that will lead to success throughout their lives.

Amy McCready is the founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and mom to two boys, ages 12 and 15. Positive Parenting Solutions teaches parents of toddlers to teens how to correct misbehaviors without nagging, reminding or yelling. For free discipline training resources, visit: www.PositiveParentingSolutions.com