Rewards Systems: Are They All They’re Cracked Up to Be?

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Rewards come in many sizes and shapes. Sticker charts, extra fun outings, and earned privileges are only a few forms. They seem like a fun, positive way to motivate our children. Seem like. When we examine them more closely, we find that they have downfalls beneath the surface. Many parents have become flustered after implementing a reward system for a certain behavior only to see their child improve for a short period of time before regressing back into their old habits. Not only do they lack real effectiveness, they also send a few messages you probably weren’t intending.

Before we take a closer look at these hidden messages, we must make an important distinction. There are two kinds of rewards: natural and artificial. Natural rewards are those benefits that naturally come from a behavior. These are things like getting to enjoy friendships because you treat people well, or the pride you feel after you have finally completed a difficult task. Artificial rewards are more like bribes. You are offering an artificial reward when you tell your child that they can have a treat if they are well behaved at the doctor’s office. Artificial rewards are things (or activities, etc) you offer to a child that wouldn’t be given in the real world.

The hidden messages of artificial rewards:

1. This behavior isn’t innately worth it. 

When we offer an extra reward for a behavior, the focus moves away from the accomplishment and onto the reward. Instead of working for good grades to get scholarships, be accepted into a great university, or just feel proud of him or herself, your child is thinking about getting the $100 you promised. Let’s say your child cares about all the right reasons AND your reward. That’s awesome! You have a mature teenager. However, you have still sent the message that you don’t believe the good grades are enough of a reward on their own.

2. I don’t think you can/will.

Do you want your kids to think that you don’t believe in them? Artificial rewards are a great way to do it. You might as well say, “I don’t think you can/will do this, so I have to try bribing you to gain your compliance.”

3.  You will get (and should get) extra goodies for doing things you should do anyway.

This one is the big kicker. When children are consistently given artificial rewards, they come to expect them. When they are asked to do something, they think, “What’s in it for me?” If they see no immediate prize, they see no reason to comply. They will also be hesitant if the reward isn’t big enough. It begins by offering your toddler a sucker if he will clean his room. Soon, a sucker is not a good enough prize because it has lost its novelty. Now you must offer him a trip to the park. He’ll get bored of that soon enough and need a trip to the zoo, and so on. This slippery slope has lead to some serious cases of entitlement.

4.  Artificial rewards can quickly turn into threats.

First you tell your child that you will take them out for a special treat if they keep their room clean this week. When you see that they aren’t making an effort, it is oh so easy to say, “Hey, if you don’t get that room clean, do you think you’ll get any ice cream? No way!” And just like that, your reward has turned into a threat.

Now, I am not claiming that there is never a reason to use an artificial reward system for children. There are certainly rare circumstances when they will be useful. I have seen them be used effectively for students who had no drive to achieve in school. In situations such as this, an artificial reward can be used for the least amount of time possible and only to get the child started. As soon as the child has made some progress, the parent should remove the system and tell the child how exciting it is that they don’t need a silly chart anymore! The focus should quickly be directed to the natural rewards.

So how does it look to use natural rewards? After a child has cleaned her room, a parent might say, “Wow! Your room looks great! It feels like a cool hang out spot now that it’s so clean!” When your son nicely shares a toy, you can say, “I’m impressed with how you shared with your friend today. I bet he felt really good because of that.” Another great one is, “You kept your underwear dry all day! Wasn’t it nice to play instead of helping me clean up messes?” Comments like these, when said with pure sincerity, make children feel like a million bucks. You may even want to reward your child with a fun trip to the park, or a treat. This is perfectly fine! There is an easy way to make sure you send the right message. Do not tell the child that a reward is coming. When you notice that they have done something great, reward them! You might say, “You kids have been so nice to each other today, I think it would be fun for us to go to the park!” This is a natural reward. You feel up to a fun afternoon out of the house because of the way they have acted. You didn’t bribe them with the trip only if they could be nice to each other. Just be wary of offering rewards after every good behavior to avoid the entitlement problem.

Does using a reward system make someone a bad parent? Absolutely not! The fact that a parent has implemented one shows that they are striving to help their child. The point of this article is to demonstrate that there are better ways. True change generally will not be the result of reward systems. People only change when they want to because they see the benefits. Our job as parents is to guide children to want to do the right things because it is naturally rewarding.

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  • Amey
    9 months ago

    This was very thought provoking. We are trying a variety of methods with our kids right now, so I appreciate your insights.

    • firmhappymom
      9 months ago

      Thanks for stopping by and giving it a read. Good luck with your kiddos! I hope you find a great solution.

  • Sarah Banwart
    9 months ago

    Wow, this is an amazing article and so true!! This is such an amazing approach to use with children. As a therapist, this is something I would refer my clients to read to gain a better understanding of this technique!
    Keep up the great work!

    • firmhappymom
      9 months ago

      Thank you!

  • Aha. I thought this article was going to be about websites that offer rewards :p

    I did read this even though I’m not a parent, but I find it fascinating to see how people do it. Your post was really interesting, so much so that it got me thinking about giving stickers to my friends kids, cuz they love stickers and I’ve got loads.. but they usually get stickers for helping around the house. Not necessarily chores, but picking something up for me. You made a great point about the whole “what’s in it for me?” mentality is fascinating!

    • firmhappymom
      9 months ago

      Haha! I’m glad you enjoyed the post even though it wasn’t what you were expecting!

  • FootprintsinCulture
    9 months ago

    I’m a new mom so this gives me something to think about. Thanks for sharing!

  • Jenny
    8 months ago

    This is really interesting and I think it’s very true. I know that with my kids, rewards don’t tend to work because it turns the chore into a negotiation. Eg if I ask them to set the table before dinner, they’ll do that happily. But if I say “I’ll give you 20p to set the table” they start to think “hmm, is it worth it? 20p for setting the table?” and then it seems reasonable for them to say “Well, I don’t need 20p at the moment so I won’t set the table.”

    The other thing for me is that I don’t really want to deny them/the family treats. We’ve discussed it quite a lot as they became aware that another family who we’re friends with does things very differently, and that’s solidified my view that I expect them to help around the house etc because we’re a family, and equally we’ll do nice things together or sometimes I’ll buy them nice things because we’re a family. The two aspects of being a family run in parallel to each other, rather than being consequences of each other. Having said that my kids are generally pretty easy-going and I know that what works with mine won’t work with all kids!

    • firmhappymom
      8 months ago

      Absolutely. As soon as rewards are offered, the mindset is completely different. I love your point about having treats simply because that’s something families do to enjoy being together!

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