This is the first post of a two-part series that aims to provide information to parents about rewards and how to use them strategically and systematically to teach children skills and modify behaviors.
Most parents have found themselves uttering something to the extent of, “If you are good, I’ll buy you a piece of candy,” at one point or another. Although rewarding appropriate behaviors can help modify behavior over time, parent concerns about rewarding and incorrect use of rewards often get in the way.
Frequently, parent concerns center on the principle of rewards. Common concerns along with considerations for these concerns include:
“I don’t want to reward my child for something he/she should be doing.” This concern often arises when there is a mismatch between parent expectations and the reality of child behavior. While this can happen for a number of reasons, parents ultimately have a choice here of accepting the behavior as is or working to change the behavior over time. For instance a parent whose 3 year old tantrums in stores when she is told no could simply accept the tantrums as the reality of shopping with a young child. However, most parents will be compelled to either try things in the moment that may make the behavior worse or avoid stores with the toddler, which does not teach the skill of staying calm and listening in these settings. Rewards used strategically can help turn a behavior that a child is not doing but “should be” into a routine habit.
“My child will become dependent on rewards.” This concern revolves around the idea that a child will need rewards in order to do anything and may even refuse tasks in absence of a reward. Here, it’s important to remember that rewards help facilitate skills and change habits over time. Once habits are formed, rewards are no longer necessary. Many parents have experience with this if they used small prizes for toilet training and can chuckle at the absurdity of giving their teenager M&Ms for using the potty. It is true that some children try to negotiate for rewards once they understand how rewards work. Negotiation can be reduced by having a clear and specific reward plan in place from the beginning.
“Rewards ruin a child’s intrinsic motivation.” This concern comes from research on rewarding and motivation. Findings from this research have fueled a backlash against incentive systems. When considering rewards for your child, it’s important to remember that there are more details to these studies that have been overlooked at times. Specifically, one of the major studies examined motivation for tasks that were enjoyable to participants before they were rewarded. If you are considering rewards for your child, there’s a good chance that your child does not find the task enjoyable and motivating on its own.
“Rewards are unnatural and not the way the world works.” Some parents worry that rewards do not prepare children for adulthood. While there are a number of examples of rewards in everyday life including working for a paycheck, another consideration here is that the use of rewards to form positive habits in childhood helps increase the likelihood of success in adulthood.
“Reward systems don’t work.” Parents will often say that they’ve tried rewards and they don’t work.
Stay tuned for our second post on rewarding kids for good behavior, which will discuss tips to help you use incentives effectively to address problem behaviors.
Stephanie M. Wagner, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and clinical assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health. She serves as the co-director of the Early Childhood Clinical Service at the Child Study Center, part of Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone.
At Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone, we understand that caring for infants, children, and teenagers is a special privilege. That’s why we partner with our young patients and their families to offer expert medical and surgical care. Our specialists treat children with conditions ranging from minor illnesses to complex, more serious issues at locations throughout the New York metropolitan area.