Is Rewarding Children Harmful?

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Is Rewarding Children Harmful? 

At the Parent Practice parents often ask how we can bring up our children to be grateful for what they have and ensuring they don’t become spoilt. Many also ask what the difference is between a bribe and a reward.
We hear of families who have promised i-pads and mobiles in exchange for good exam results and we have all at some point given in to the sweetie at the supermarket checkout as we are trying to get the trolley packed, whilst looking after a screaming toddler.

So what is the difference between a bribe and a reward?
A bribe is offered beforehand to influence a behaviour ,whereas a reward is given afterward to acknowledge a behaviour.
The language used is significant too.
Bribe = “I’ll buy you these sweeties IF you promise not to make a fuss about sitting in the shopping trolley.”
Reward = “You have been so patient while I was helping Ethan with his homework. You didn’t interrupt and just did something else for a while. Now you have earned a game of UNO with me.”

The ‘if you do X you can have Y’ model involves a loss of parental control. The child is in charge as the parent pays a price for what they want the child to do. One of the concerns parents quite rightly have is that this price goes up! ‘Bribe inflation’ means that the child can raise the stakes and may end up only doing what’s required for a treat and that treat will get bigger and bigger. “I won’t do it for 3 sweeties. I’ll do it for 4.” This teaches our children that they can manipulate their parents and that ‘rules’ are negotiable.

Writer Alfie Kohn argues that rewarding children is “morally objectionable and practically counterproductive, that the problem lies …with …the idea that we offer to someone something they need or want in order to control how they act.” He says it is objectionable to control another human being. We would say that parents are always trying to influence their children –it’s what raising children is all about. But we think influence is more powerful than control.

Another concern is that when parents use material objects to reward children for good behaviour or performance (or take them away for misbehaviour), those children see their value as connected to performance and measured in material things.
So how can you get your children into good habits and cooperative behaviour without bribing or rewarding materially?

Here are the 7 tips for helping children develop appreciation and intrinsic motivation
1. Don’t reward performance, whether academic or otherwise. A good result is its own reward. Instead celebrate the effort your child has put in to their studies or sport. Don’t give them the message that your approval is dependent on their successes.

2. Descriptive praise is the best reward. When we appreciate our children they learn to be appreciative.

3. Use non-material rewards. Get creative and choose a new reward today -a pillow fight, blowing bubbles, remote control Daddy, torch lit indoor safari looking for toy animals, picnic tea under the table, a candle lit dinner/ bath or sending them a real letter in the post! You are only limited by your imagination.

4. Presence not presents . The one thing children crave more than anything is time with you. In this busy frenetic world it is so easy not to make this a priority as you race from one activity to another. Treat spending time with your children as a meeting with an important client. You diarise it and can’t afford to be late or to miss the appointment!

5. Have your child earn privileges for good behaviour – children are much more appreciative of their screen time, toys, outings, having friends to play etc if you have a system in place whereby they earn their privileges. This increases their self-esteem, confidence and motivation. If they don’t do what’s required they simply haven’t earnt their screentime, rather than you taking away what they think of as their inalienable right!

6. Replace IF with WHEN .Remember words are important so replace “IF I let you watch TV now you must do your homework straight afterwards” with “WHEN you have completed your homework, you will have earnt your TV time.”

7. Talk up the intrinsic benefits of the task to avoid extrinsic over-controlling. When your child does something good point out the intrinsic benefits of the behaviour/achievement, including how happy it makes you. Children want to please parents, even though it doesn’t always look like it! “I really love it when you do what Daddy asks you to do quickly. Now we have time for two stories!” “Thank you for standing still and letting me brush your teeth at the back. That shows me you understand how important it is to look after your teeth , to stop them from getting decay. Now you not only have fresh breath but healthy gnashers!”
Elaine Halligan is Director of The Parent Practice, an organisation that helps parents bring out the best in their children.

Her new book “My Child’s Different” an Amazon best seller was published with Crown House Autumn 2018.