Mom Tip Monday: 3 Alternatives to Offering Rewards

by Heligirl on September 20, 2010

in Daily Ramblings,Mom Tip Monday,Parenting Articles,Positive Discipline

To say rewards are strongly discouraged in Positive Discipline would be an understatement. Rewards may be effective, but they’re very dangerous. In fact, they’re really just a form of manipulation, which is disrespectful to kids.

Rewards teach kids to seek external validation for behaviors. Children are learning to do something or behave a certain way in order to receive an external benefit – a reward of some type.

With rewards, children become conditioned to seek external benefits for behaviors. They can eventually develop an inability to be motivated without a reward. They can also become unable to sense any satisfaction in doing things without reward. In the end, it robs them of their capability.

Additionally, offering rewards also sharpens the sense of inadequacy when the child doesn’t do what is expected to receive the reward. This quickly robs them of self esteem and conditions them to seek the rewards as additional evidence they’re accepted. In fact, studies have proven that high achieving children raised on rewards actually exhibited a deeper fear of failure and thus took less risks than other children.

There is some very real truth in the saying “your reward is satisfaction in a job well done.”

That’s not to say if you’ve ever offered a reward you’ve scarred your child for life. Believe me, I’m guilty too in times of serious desperation. The important thing to remember is the long run. If you’re being the coach and encouraging your child along the way, rather than the judge with the reward or punishment at the other end, your child will definitely gain a sense of being capable and develop higher self esteem from the inside (as opposed to hanging their self esteem on external approvals).

Here are a couple of alternatives when you’re feeling the need to offer rewards:

1.     Encourage along the way. For instance, you’re trying to help your child to use the potty every time once she’s started showing interest. Rather than a sticker chart or candy each time, try encouraging language like “You did it,” “I knew you could do it,” “You must be so proud of yourself.” Notice these don’t mention your approval directly or the fact that you’re proud of the child. Doing a little dance after together is also a great encouragement. You’re helping develop the child’s own internal dialogue. Alternatively, if there is an accident, be encouraging. “Don’t worry, I have faith you’ll do it next time,” “It takes practice. Just keep practicing,” and “We’ll just try again next time.”

2.     Have a positive activity in the routine. Always having a positive thing your child enjoys at the end of something he doesn’t particularly enjoy or where he regularly has difficulty behaving gives him something to look forward. For instance, if there is always a struggle to get into the car seat, having a routine where a snack or favorite toy is always offered after getting into the car seat as a part of the regular routine. It’s very important these things are never denied if your child doesn’t behave as you want. If that happens, you’ve turned them into a reward and their denial is a punishment. Having a positive item in your routine helps you teach there are tough things you don’t like, but there are also good things to look forward to. “I know you don’t like getting into your car seat, but remember you have your teddy waiting for you.”

3.     Understand the behavior and development stage. Understanding the underlying cause of the behavior you’re trying to discourage is more than half the battle. Perhaps your child won’t stay in her room after bedtime. Is she afraid of the dark? Does she need more time to settle down? Is she just needing some connection time? Did you recently break the routine allowing her to stay up late, sleep in your bed or you went away for a vacation? Taking time to think about and research the underlying cause can help you address the specific issue, which will help you work together to improve the behavior. Taking the time to do this respects your child, helps her develop a sense she’s capable and keeps her from developing a need for external approval she’s doing things right.

For more information on Positive Discipline, I highly encourage the book Positive Discipline, by Jane Nelsen, and the online Positive Parenting Solutions course.


Susan September 23, 2010 at 9:16 pm

Thanks for this post. I love the reason why Positive Discipline does not believe in using rewards. Once, when I was being pressured by a now, ex-friend, to get my child potty trained, I created a sticker chart for my son. At that point, I had rarely used stickers to try to motivate him. Mostly because he didn’t care about them. I felt deep down that even though he was showing all the signs of being capable of leaving diapers behind at that point; for some reason, he wasn’t ready- and I respected that and didn’t want to push him. The chart was very inventive and was filled with prizes and rewards at various stages. And the end prize was a toy train, picked out by my son.

Well, for about a week, my son worked his way along the chart (that was train tracks with several reward stops- train stations). Before long, he lost interest in the rewards and reverted. There was no amount of external reward that would convince him to give up diapers. I dropped it. Finally, about a year later, he decided, on his own, to move into underpants. Once he did, there was no looking back. And he only had 3 small accidents the first week.

Twitter: Heligirl
September 24, 2010 at 8:36 am

Thanks so much for commenting Susan. I was getting pretty bummed out that I wrote this very important piece of information on PD and no one had a single comment. I fear a lot of folks think this is the wrong way or feel that by sharing how to not reward I’m telling people who do it that they’re doing it wrong. I’m simply trying to get the word out, while also admitting that I too mess up along the way. These articles I’m publishing are also a reminder to me to stay on the path. I so look forward to and appreciate your additions. I would love to have you write a guest post on any PD topic of your choice if you like.

adriel September 26, 2010 at 11:27 pm

Hi again! It’s been a while. I was just going through my reader and trying to update some of my folders when I realized I’ve been missing your blog because it wasn’t in the “right” folder. Well, problem solved now. 🙂

This is a great post and I’m looking forward to your Mom Tip Mondays. I love this: “conditions them to seek the rewards as additional evidence they’re accepted”. I think it’s so important that we don’t accidentally teach our kids that they need rewards to know they are valuable, accepted, good enough, etc. It’s so sad when adults fall into the “approval trap” and seek validation from anywhere and everywhere… and no doubt some of this stuff is rooted in childhood.

I’m not exempt from this by any means, and there ARE times when children AND adults need to be affirmed and rewarded for a “job well done”. I think that’s good and right. But rewards should not be a given, or a necessity, or a right… they should be a reward. 🙂

I am a little confused about your second point though. Seems a bit like a reward to me… just a “routine” or planned reward. Can you please clarify the difference from your perspective? Maybe in another MTM or something? 🙂

Have a great week!
adriel recently posted: who wants to hear from a hunky aussie bloke a daddy chats vlog

Twitter: Heligirl
September 27, 2010 at 3:55 pm

Hi Adriel! Welcome back!! Thanks for the great comment and the question. I’ll try to clarify.

Rewards are something you hold out there conditionally – you do it the way I want and you get this reward. The second point I make above is more about creating things to look forward to. We all have stuff we have to do, even though we don’t like to, and having something positive in the routine to look forward to is not a reward if it is always there. Some folks call this an incentive, which it can be. I don’t like that word used in these situations as it sounds like reward.

My litmus test for things when I relate them to positive discipline is “is this respectful enough that I would I say or do it to a coworker or like it said or done to me by a coworker.” (I use coworker because family and close friends are a little different – we get away with more.)

For the positive routine at the end of something you don’t like, I liken this to me having a cup of tea in the afternoon. There’s always tons to do, and I may not do it all, or do it properly, but I get a cup of tea in the afternoon. Sometimes I add chocolate (because some days just require it). Teaching kids they can choose their own positive things to look forward to is a very positive coping skill.

I hope this helps clear it up some. Thanks again for the great question. Now off to hear the hunky Aussie talk…

Susan September 29, 2010 at 7:54 pm

I’d be honored to write a guest post on a PD topic. Please be patient with me as I ask stupid questions #1-100. How does a person write a guest post? Or more specifically where? Is it something I write and send to you to post, or do I post it on my blog, to be linked to yours?

I’ll have to mull over what will make for scintillating reading, guaranteed to rake in the comments and hits. Or I’ll just find a topic that really speaks to me the way the reward/ external motivator vs. internal motivator, does.

Twitter: Heligirl
September 30, 2010 at 8:56 pm

You just write a post and e-mail it to me. I’ll post it with a link back to your site. By the way, when you fill out the comment form, be sure to put in your blog website. That way folks can click on it when they read your post! When you have time, just send me something you write from your heart and I’ll post it.

Thanks so much Susan!

Previous post:

Next post: