Positive Parenting Tip: The Use and Misuse of Rewards

The Use and Misuse of Rewards

positive parenting tips by expert speakerThe effective use of tangible rewards and social reinforcers can be powerful incentives for shaping children’s behavior. Rewarding desired behavior promotes learning and helps parents focus on what their child does right, instead of reacting to misbehavior. Positive reinforcement can be highly effective in establishing a new pattern of behavior, like learning to use the potty, staying in bed all night, completing chores, or practicing an instrument.

Authored by Marianne Neifert, MD, MTS – Dr. Mom®
Professional Speaker on Topics such as Positive Parenting, Work Life Balance, Breastfeeding Promotion and Support, Personal Growth, and Family Spirituality

The following strategies will help you choose and use rewards effectively:

· Model for your child the ultimate reward of self-discipline and self-satisfaction that results from sustained effort and a job well done. Observing your example and hearing your self-affirmations help your child appreciate that internal motivation is more important than external rewards, “I’m glad I’m taking a computer class because I’m learning so much,” “Boy, I sure feel good about cleaning up the garage.”

· Identify what type of reward would be an incentive for your child (her currency). Most children are motivated simply by social rewards, including smiles, hugs, authentic praise, positive attention, or an activity with you. Such affirmations raise your child’s sense of self-worth and self-confidence. Occasional tangible rewards—like toys, treats, stickers, money, special activities, or extra privileges—also can be effective motivators. Concrete rewards should always be accompanied by your specific praise, attention, and expressions of affection.

· Timing is the key to the effectiveness of positive reinforcement. The younger the child, the sooner the reward must be given to the desired behavior, for example offering effusive praise and an M & M when your toddler uses the potty. Preschoolers will need a daily reward at first to promote a new behavior, such as an extra story for getting ready for bed without protesting. Late preschoolers and early elementary children enjoy the visual reward of documenting their progress on a prominent Reward Chart, using stars or happy face stickers. The chart can be coupled with a weekly reward, such as a special outing or small toy, for accumulated points.

· Consistently offer rewards to help jump start a desired behavior; then gradually decrease the frequency and predictability of rewards. Positive reinforcement is for learning, not maintaining a behavior. After the desired behavior is learned, providing intermittent, unpredictable reinforcement will make the behavior more likely to persist, “Way to go! You are becoming very responsible.” Eventually, the child’s self-satisfaction and self-approval should be sufficient reward for consistently maintaining the expected behavior.

Potential Pitfalls of Rewards

While the use of rewards can be very effective, avoid these drawbacks:

· The overuse of material rewards can cause some children to expect a pay-off for every positive behavior, “What will you give me for cleaning my room?” This attitude will sabotage your ultimate goal of having your child develop self-motivation and self-approval.

· Excessive praise can cause a child to become overly dependent on the approval of others, rather than learning to draw her own conclusions about her worth and competence, “Look, I picked up my toys! Do you like my picture?” You can help your child learn to affirm herself by inviting her to assess her own performance, “Tell me about your picture,” “How does it feel to have a clean room?”

· Using rewards sometimes backfires because children may associate rewards with being coerced to do something they don’t like. For example, too much praise for eating his vegetables can make your child conclude that vegetables must be unpleasant to eat.

· Children who feel ignored often misbehave as a way to get their parents’ undivided attention. Even negative attention can feel like a reward, thereby reinforcing misbehavior. To break this pattern, give your child plenty of one-on-one positive attention, and consistently reward desired behavior.

Rewards vs Bribes

Rewards are positive incentives that celebrate and promote desired behavior, while bribes are used to avoid or stop misbehavior. Bribes tend to be offered when parents are feeling stressed and manipulated and often involve an advance pay-off, in hopes of producing the desired behavior, “Okay, I’ll buy you gum if you agree not to ask for anything else,” or “All right, I’ll let you finish watching this program, if you promise to do all your homework afterwards.” Bribes give children too much power and often produce the opposite result than you had hoped.

Copyright © 2012 Marianne Neifert, MD, MTS