When Does Rewarding a Child Work and When Does It Go Too Far?

child doing dishesShould parents offer rewards to children for something they are expected to do?

Picking up toys, making the bed, and helping with the dishes are basic responsibilities that children can accomplish and contribute to the family. But what should a parent do when a child throws a fit about brushing his teeth or takes a half hour to complete a basic task like getting herself dressed? Is it OK to provide a reward for something a child is “supposed” to do?

Parents often seem to be firmly split into two camps in this debate. One side argues that dangling a carrot simply teaches children that they shouldn’t have to do something if there won’t be some immediate payoff when the job is complete. The other side reasons that adults work to get paid, so offering an incentive to kids for completing tasks can’t be that bad.

When parents come to me struggling with this dilemma, I encourage them to analyze the situation. We don’t want to enable the behavior, which can lead to learned helplessness. On the other hand, if the child is repeatedly failing to complete a task successfully, causing turmoil in the family, something needs to be done before his or her self-esteem is damaged and the family dynamics turn sour.

The key is finding a balance between these two extremes. Creating specific and targeted goals to help build self-efficacy and confidence in the child will go a long way. And if that means giving the child a sticker every time he or she brushes his/her teeth without a meltdown, so be it.

Will this teach the child to respond only to extrinsic motivation? The short answer is “no.” This isn’t a long-term fix for the problem. It is positive reinforcement for a specific goal. Once the habit is established, the reward can be removed.

Another thing to remember is that, as a general rule, children do well if they can. If a child is not meeting expectations, we need to determine what skills he or she is missing and teach them. Especially if a child has an attention deficit or is identified on the autism spectrum, he or she may not have the internal regulation to be able to manage these expectations alone. Providing structure and specific targets for goals will help to develop executive functioning that is necessary for future independence and internal motivation.

Developing specific goals with your child is key to helping him or her to learn needed skills. Get your child’s feedback and collaborate to help him or her know what is expected and why it will make a difference.

Some examples of targeted goals that foster independence and growth:

  • I can earn a sticker for each day that I begin my homework without a reminder. When I earn 10 stickers, I earn $1. (Notice that this goal isn’t set for 100% achievement to succeed; it is based on building the skill one day at a time, and by hitting a certain mark, the goal is reached.)
  • I can track the amount of time it takes me to get ready in the morning. When I can get dressed, brush my teeth, and brush my hair in less than 15 minutes, mom will make me cinnamon rolls for breakfast. (Notice the specific skills and the defined amount of time that is appropriate. This could be tracked on a spreadsheet on a tablet or a graph on paper that the child completes each day.)
  • I can feed the dog without complaining or whining before dinner each day. I earn two points for doing it without a parent asking, one point for doing it with a single reminder, and no points if I have to be reminded more than once or if I complain. After earning 15 points, we will have a family movie night with popcorn.

One of the biggest obstacles parents face when working to reach a goal is the child losing interest. When this happens (because it will!), take a moment to step back and evaluate why things are no longer working. It may simply take a moment to “freshen up” the goal with a new tracking device. Perhaps the goal is still out of reach for the child. Don’t give up! As habits build, the effort will pay off and you will be able to teach your child the skills necessary to self-motivate and reach goals he or she set.

If you need guidance on this or other parenting techniques, consider contacting a therapist or child counselor.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Emily Kircher-Morris, LPC, therapist in O Fallon, Missouri

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Simon

    Simon

    November 6th, 2014 at 10:04 AM

    Even though we expect our kids to help out around the house, we still pay them for doing so. It is called an allowance, and they know what the expectations are for them to get this.

  • Zee

    Zee

    November 6th, 2014 at 11:24 AM

    There can be a way where this is done thoughtfully, you know like start out with something big to tempt them into doing what you need them to do and then slowly taper off as time goes on.
    This way you reward immediately but then you take away a little at a time so that they don’t need as much anymore.
    Sounds like some rehab program right?
    And this would probably only go over well if you start out with this method when the kids are young, before the understand the real value of money and stuff like that.

  • mike

    mike

    November 9th, 2014 at 10:42 AM

    Is it bad to admit that my kids only respond to bribery?

  • Lisa

    Lisa

    November 10th, 2014 at 8:25 AM

    I am being very truthful when I say that we have never had to rely on this kind of reward system in my house to get the kids to behave. I guess because we started out from a very young age not promoting this, then it is not something that ever really caught on at home.
    I know that the teachers at school do it and that is fine with me, whatever you have to do sometimes to make forward progress, you know? But at home, nothing like this has ever been necessary YET.
    I say yet because I know that there will come a time when we probably have to do a little more on our part to get the things done that we want but for now, until we need to, I think that I will abstain.

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