Is It Helpful or Harmful to Reward Kids for Good Behavior?

How can I raise my child to be a person who behaves responsibly, kindly, and generously? This question has led to seemingly endless discussions, disagreements, and disputes among parents, and among experts. One of the central points of disagreement has been whether to use rewards: are the short-term gains in good behavior real, or are we actually raising a generation of selfish manipulators who view their choices through the lens of “what’s in it for me?”

As with most big questions, particularly those having to do with parenting, there is no simple answer. Much like every other parenting strategy, rewards are very useful at some times, and at other times do more harm than good. It is worth taking a closer look at some of the research regarding using rewards with children to help make the best decisions.

Some of the earlier, and more well-known, research on rewards led to the conclusion that if someone was rewarded for doing an activity, the person would actually lose motivation once the rewards stopped. This research involved looking at the effect of rewards on people’s motivation to participate in activities they already enjoyed, however. So, what we have in fact seen is that parents do not need to reward their children in order to motivate them to do enjoyable tasks. Most parents already know this. In contrast, a study analyzing the effects of rewards on motivation for various tasks reached the conclusion that people consistently spent more time on unappealing tasks if they were rewarded for doing so.

A larger concern parents often have is that they will get stuck in a trap, that their children will only do things when they are rewarded. But what rewards actually do is facilitate practice in behaviors, until the behaviors become routine. For example, a parent who struggled to get her daughter to put her jacket in the closet when she came in the house started rewarding her for doing this. At first, she needed to remind her daughter each time. After several days, the daughter didn’t need reminding – she hung up her jacket and then asked for her reward. After a few more weeks, she stopped asking for the reward – hanging up her jacket had become a habit, and the parents moved on to the next goal. These parents also described what may be the most important benefit of using such a strategy: their relationships improved. Instead of getting frustrated and nagging their daughter about putting her jacket away, their interactions became more positive in that situation and overall.

Perhaps the best way to think about which situations respond best to a reward system is that rewarding your child for doing something can help them try and practice things that they don’t like, or that they don’t yet have the skills they need to feel good about it. A good example is rewarding your child to practice the earliest skills that can lead to writing. As the child practices, she will notice her skills improving, and the increased feelings of competence and success become rewards in themselves.

One of the most basic principles underlying why anyone does anything is that if your action leads to a positive result, you are more likely to do it again. It’s what keeps most adults going to work every day. Our children are no different. Providing the right rewards in the right circumstances is one of the most effective, and most enjoyable ways, to put our children on the path to success.

Marcia Mofson, Ph.D.
Adapted from an article in Slate magazine by Melinda Wenner Moyer