Do rewards work?

Two different opinions on children's reward systems.

By Todays Parent and Today's Parent
Do rewards work? Photo: iStockphoto

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. Here are two ways parents might use rewards. Six-year-old Marcus is struggling with reading. When his parents ask him to read instead of watch TV, he gets frustrated and distracted, and quickly gives up. So his mother sets up a system in which Marcus receives a special dinosaur sticker every time he reads a page with her. When he has five stickers, Marcus can have 10 minutes of playtime with his mom (or a small treat, or TV time).


Marcus’s mom uses a kitchen timer to let him know when 10 minutes of playtime have passed. And while he is reading, she sits with him, coaching and praising his effort: “I’m so proud of how hard you worked to read those pages! I bet you’re proud of yourself for doing that much reading!” Once Marcus is more independent and self-confident about reading, his mom can eliminate the reward or set a harder goal, such as reading more pages before getting a sticker.

Now consider another six-year-old boy, Ben, who throws a tantrum at the mall when his mom asks him to sit quietly while she speaks with a sales clerk. She responds by giving him some candy so he will stop yelling. The candy is a bribe, not a reward, because it is given before the desired behaviour has occurred and is actually reinforcing the yelling behaviour.

Misusing rewards does not help Ben to learn how to wait independently; he’s actually learning to use tantrums to get what he wants. A better way to handle the situation would be for Ben’s mom to plan with him that he could earn a sticker at each store where he waited quietly, and when he earned four stickers, he’d be treated to a special treat such as ice cream.

I like to describe rewards as a kind of scaffolding that can be removed when the new behaviour has a solid foundation. Remember how you supported your baby as he learned to crawl, and then walk? Rewards can perform the same role in a child’s emotional and social development.

— Carolyn Webster-Stratton, clinical psychologist, director of the Parenting Clinic at the University of Washington in Seattle, and creator of The Incredible Years, a training program for parents, teachers and children.


CON – An unproductive killjoy

There’s a school of thought that sees children as slackers. According to this view, kids won’t do anything — potty train, study, clean up — unless someone offers them an incentive. If that’s the way you think about children, then it makes perfect sense to lure them into compliant behaviour with stickers, money, Timbits or toys. Psychologists refer to these as “extrinsic motivators”; parents know them better as rewards. You can call them whatever you want, as long as you don’t use them with your kids.

There’s no shortage of parents with success stories about how they got their child to make her bed by paying her a dollar. But anecdotes aren’t evidence. So what does the research say about rewards?

Back in the 1960s, psychologist Sam Glucksberg did an experiment in which he divided subjects into two groups and asked them to solve a problem. The first group was told that the researchers wanted to determine the average length of time it took to figure out the solution. The other group was told that whoever solved the problem the fastest would receive a cash reward. In trial after trial, the group that was offered the reward took longer to solve the problem.

Research like this is summarized in Daniel Pink’s excellent 2009 book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Pink shows us that rewards can improve performance on simple mechanical tasks, like the speed of workers on an assembly line. But they’re ineffective, even harmful, when applied to cognitive, creative, social or problem-solving tasks.


Here’s another surprising study that Alfie Kohn points out in his book Punished by Rewards. Mark Lepper of Stanford University invited preschoolers to draw pictures with Magic Markers and told some of them that using the markers would earn them a personalized certificate with a red ribbon and gold star. These children actually drew less than the kids who were not promised a reward. A couple of weeks later, the children who had been promised rewards were still less interested in the markers. Shouldn’t an incentive make them love drawing with markers that much more, since they get to play and they get a reward? But that’s not what happens: When you pay a child to do something, her brain stops encoding the activity in the area reserved for “fun and pleasure” and reclassifies it as “work.”

Not all rewards are harmful, though, and the way a parent presents the reward can make all the difference. If your child brings home a great report card and you surprise her with a new bike, that’s fine. Daniel Pink refers to these as “now that...” rewards, as in “Now that you’ve had a successful school year, we’re going to reward you with a new bike.” Compare this with the more common and more dangerous “if-then” reward, as in “If you get all A’s, then we’ll buy you a bike.” When you position a reward this way, you may well see some short-term success, such as improved grades. However, a kid’s interest and enthusiasm in the task typically diminishes. We kill their joy of learning by making them feel that they must jump through hoops to meet other people’s goals, not their own.

Kids and adults work at their peak potential when they are allowed autonomy, the chance to develop mastery and have a sense of purpose about what they are tackling. This is true even for mundane tasks like cleaning house: The child who feels ownership and pride in his own bedroom is intrinsically motivated to keep it (at least somewhat) clean. You can nurture that sense of ownership by applying a logical consequence: “Your room is so messy I don’t want to come in, so let’s have our goodnight kiss at the door.”

If you want to learn more about the negative effects of rewards, I recommend the books by Daniel Pink and Alfie Kohn. If you don’t have time to read, at least check out their talks on YouTube. I’ll give you a dollar if you do!

— Alyson Schafer, psychotherapist, parenting expert and the author of Honey, I Wrecked the Kids.

This article was originally published on Sep 07, 2010

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