Let’s face it, rewards are easy ways to entice children, they increase motivation and they often work. However, so does candy. Unfortunately what works is not always what is best. Many educators and parents already know that punishment and threats are counterproductive. Punishing children to get them to alter their behavior can also work temporarily however this method is not likely to help them become caring and principled decision makers. Many adults who choose not to punish choose to offer rewards as an alternative. Unfortunately rewards in the long run are no more successful than punishments at helping kids to become responsible people and independent thinkers.
Experiments involving the effect of rewards have found that when rewards stop, people usually return to they way they acted before. It has also been documented that children who are rewarded more often than others tend to show less generous behavior than their peers.
What to do?? Good values can flourish from the inside out. First and foremost for a child to be motivated from within rather than from without they need to feel part of a safe, nurturing community where they have choices about what they are learning. This goes for both the school and the home environment. Also parents can help kids find comfort within rather than looking to others to do it in the following ways:
- Instead of saying “I’m proud of you” let them know they should be proud of themselves and why. Rather than just a pat on the back or a “good job” let them know what specifically was successful. For example, “I noticed you took the time to help your sister with her homework, that was very kind of you” or “I see you remembered to feed the dog – that was very responsible.” Rather than getting a reward the child hears, “I’m kind” or “I’m responsible.” This is a much greater reward in the long run.
- Help them cultivate a comfortable “internal compass.” For instance a child who says that they go for a run or that they “need to think it over” when they are upset has already discovered ways to cope with unpleasant or confusing feelings. Instead of trying to make a child feel better with “something” help them discover what they can do on their own that will help. They will carry this with them through life.
- Don’t solve all their problems or “fix” mistakes. Let them experience disappointment once in a while. A healthy self means having the skills to deal with challenges and setbacks. Resilience is such an important skill for kids to have in this world. Let them know that failure and mistakes are part of life. Convey faith in them that they will come through it just fine.
For more information on this topic see the article “The Risk of Rewards” by Alfie Kohn http://www.ericdigests.org/1995-2/rewards.htm . Also Madeline Levine’s book, “The Price of Privilege” is a wonderful resource for parents wishing more information on the importance of cultivating a healthy “inner self for their children:” www.thepriceofprivilege.com.