Two opinions on children's reward systems.
The experts agree: Bribes are bad and surprises are super. But can reward systems help kids change their behaviour? Carolyn Webster-Stratton says “sometimes” — with the right planning and follow-through from parents, incentives can be the boost some children need to move on with an important developmental task. Alyson Schafer, meanwhile, says “seldom” — she believes that rewarding kids takes the fun out of learning to do things independently and keeps kids from meeting their potential. Here are the arguments.
PRO – An extra boost
Young children work hard to meet their milestones — whether it’s becoming toilet trained, dressing independently, playing co-operatively or learning to read. Encouragement and praise from parents help them get there but, occasionally, kids need a little extra incentive. That’s where rewards can be helpful.
Parents sometimes worry that rewards will make their children “sticker dependent,” or that using rewards will decrease inner motivation. It’s true that these things might happen when rewards are not well planned or are not developmentally appropriate. However, when used correctly, rewards can help kids succeed, make them proud of their accomplishments, and motivate them to keep working on challenges.
In my book, The Incredible Years, I outline the steps to follow when setting up a reward system:
• Define the desired behaviour clearly: “Sit quietly and read a few pages of your book” is better than “Turn off the TV and do something else.”
• Don’t make reward programs too complex; choose one or two behaviours to start.
• Choose incentives that are cheap and fun. An extra bedtime story or 10 minutes of playtime can work as well as or better than a prize.
• Pair rewards with praise and attention.
• When you see the behaviour you want, be sure to reward your child.
• Change or phase out the rewards as the behaviour becomes easier for your child.
• For kids four to six years, spontaneous, surprise rewards are the best way to celebrate successes. If your five-year-old waited quietly until you were off the phone, treat him to a story for being so patient.
• Six- to 10-year-olds often like points or stickers they can trade in for a reward of their choice (subject to your approval, of course).
• Trying to bribe kids with the promise of a reward while they are in the midst of misbehaving is ineffective and counterproductive.