5 Common Concerns About Giving Kids Rewards

Using reward systems as a discipline tool to motivate kids to behave

Rewards can be helpful to kids but they should be used with caution.
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Reward systems can be an effective discipline tool. But, many parents hesitate to give kids rewards. Whether they're granting extra privileges or giving a child a new toy, they worry that rewarding good behavior isn't a good idea.

Here are the most common concerns parents have about giving kids rewards:

1. Isn’t a reward the same as a bribe?

There’s a difference between a reward and a bribe. A bribe is when you give a misbehaving child a treat in exchange for his promise that he'll be good.

Saying, “I’ll buy you a candy bar if you stop yelling,” is a bribe.

A reward on the other hand, is given after the child exhibits good behavior. Telling a child prior to going to the store, “If you follow the rules today, I’ll let you pick out one treat on the way out,” constitutes a reward. Rewards should target specific behavior and are usually pre-planned.

It's important to be the one who sets the rules about rewards. Don't allow your child to earn a reward because he blackmails you by saying, “I’ll be good if you buy me something.”

Rewards are healthy for kids because kids learn that privileges and extra incentives must be earned. Bribes teach kids to use their behavior as a way to manipulate others. Although bribes can be tempting as it can make kids change their behavior immediately, it doesn’t teach appropriate skills over the long haul. In real life, you don’t receive your paycheck until you’ve done the work.

2. I shouldn’t have to reward kids for behavior they should be exhibiting anyway.

There are lots of behaviors that can be addressed with reward systems and sometimes kids need a little extra help learning new skills. They certainly don’t need rewards for every single good behavior, but rewards can help motivate them as they address specific behavior problems.

Rewards can target new skills, such as anger management skills. Until they master these skills, a reward program can motivate them to change their behavior and practice the skills you are teaching. Eventually rewards can be phased out and replaced with praise.

3. Don’t reward systems just spoil kids?

Reward systems don’t necessarily spoil kids. In fact, reward systems can be a great way to teach kids that privileges need to be earned instead of automatically granted.

Positive consequences motivate people of all ages. Most adults go to work to receive their reward in the form a paycheck. Similarly, kids can learn that good behavior will lead to more privileges or extra rewards.

It’s likely that your child receives extra privileges and incentives already. Linking privileges to good behavior teaches kids that they have to earn things in life. In that sense, reward systems can actually prevent kids from becoming spoiled as they’ll learn the value of things when they have to earn them.

Kids don’t need to earn lavish rewards every day.

Instead, younger kids can benefit from a simple sticker chart. Older kids can benefit from a token economy system that allows them to exchange tokens for larger rewards.

4. I don’t have enough money to pay for rewards.

There are plenty of rewards that don’t cost any money. Free rewards and incentives can usually provide plenty of motivation to kids. Allow a child to earn a later bedtime, choose a special meal or pick a game to play.

Get creative with your rewards and you won’t have to invest much money. Ask kids for their input on what sorts of things they would like to earn. Something as simple as a “Get out of one day of chores” coupon can often inspire kids to work hard.

5. It takes too much work to keep track of a reward system.

One of the four biggest discipline mistakes parents tend to make is not looking at their long-term goals. Although reward systems do take some extra work in the beginning, they can make a big difference in your child’s behavior. If you invest a little extra time now, it will mean you’ll need to spend less time disciplining in the future.

Don’t make a reward system too complicated. Only focus on a couple of behaviors at a time. Otherwise, your child will grow confused. A simple reward system should clearly outline the target behavior or behaviors you want addressed and the rewards your child can earn.

For certain behavior problems, it makes sense to monitor the behavior for a certain chunk of time. For example, if you want your child to work on getting along better with his brother, you might choose to really only target this behavior after dinner, if this is when the most problems seem to occur. Keep the reward system simple so that both you and your child are clear about how it will work.

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