There is a lot of talk and confusion about the concept of rewarding children. I find that many parents still have a lot of questions relating to rewards. Things like: Why are rewards important? How do we know when to reward our children? Do we risk over-rewarding? What if my child doesn’t care about rewards? Won’t they just learn to expect a reward for everything they do? What about when they go to University or the workforce? How will they cope when rewards are not showered upon them? Am I spoiling my kids?
Why do we reward?
We reward because we want to highlight, magnify and encourage something positive. It could be something we saw our child improving on (i.e.: tidy up time was a struggle, and we just noticed her making an effort to tidy up quickly). The behaviour is often tied to a larger overall skill that we are hoping to develop in our child (i.e.: the teenager who told you about their day before heading off to see their friends). Keeping these two things in mind will avoid over-rewarding our children… or as one parent called it “rewards for breathing”.
Material Rewards vs. Praise
Material rewards (money, gifts) may have their place, however praise is the best way to expressly acknowledge what you saw your child doing that was positive. Receiving a material reward for good behaviour ties that good behaviour to that reward. For example, if your child earns a dollar every time he makes his bed, he will expect a dollar every day. Conversely, if you praise him for making his bed and specifically acknowledge how he is taking care of his things, he might be rewarded (after a few weeks) with a set of cool, new sheets. Rewards should be tied to the behaviour. This goes for consequences as well – more on that in future posts.
The Element of Surprise
Material things might best be used as noncontingent spontaneous reward. This is a fancy way for saying that you surprise your child with something novel without tying it to a specific behaviour. It avoids the act of tying the behaviour to the reward. It might include bringing home pizza for dinner one evening, popping in to the dollar store and allowing them to choose something, or buying their favourite treat from the grocery store. Or, it could be a not-so-material reward like inviting your child to bake with you, or suggesting an impromptu library trip.
Catch Them Being Good
Depending on your child’s temperament, rewards will be of varying importance, and different types of rewards will be more or less meaningful. For some children, praise goes a long way. For some kids, saying “wow, I love how you cleaned your room without me even having to ask” will generate a big, proud smile. Other children may resist, refute, or seemingly reject praise. Check this out with your child. What would they like you to say instead? It may be helpful to try projecting the praise to the act or object, rather than the child. For example, instead of “you did such a nice job putting away your video games”, you can say in passing “wow, look how tidy those video games are”. This can be a small but meaningful difference.
Gossip - In A Good Way!
With young children, I like the strategy described by Dr. Harvey Karp as “gossiping”. This strategy amplifies the praise you are giving your child by letting them hear you whisper it to someone else (a bird, a favourite toy, their other parent). For example, if your child has difficulty leaving the park without tears, you may say out loud to the bird in the tree “Mr. Bird, look at how Sally is leaving the park today with no tears! We’ll be back another day to have fun”. After using this strategy, I was told by a certain 2 year old that I forgot to tell Minnie Mouse what good tooth-brushing she had done before bed! A note of caution: my preference is to avoid gossiping to another child as this can set up comparisons which are typically un-motivating and unhelpful.
I’ve tried to tackle a few of the most common questions. Please share some of your successes, struggles, or questions in the comments below and we can keep the reward talk going in future posts…
Andrea Del Vecchio is a Toronto-based social worker and family therapist, as well as Brili's go-to child behavior expert.