Wednesday, December 29, 2010

What I Think About: Reward Systems

Have you ever asked a child to do something (clean her room, pick up his toys, put a plate in the dishwasher) and the child responds with "What will you give me for doing it?"

Have you have a conversation about "these kids today" and how "ungrateful and unmotivated" they are?

Have you ever wondered where these kids learned it?


Photo Source

Reward systems are pretty widely used by parents and educators alike.

I see it in classrooms all the time.  Well intentioned teachers use a token of some sort to bribe  manipulate encourage kids into good behavior.  If everyone does well, you get a pizza party. If you turn in your homework you get a star.  If you get three stars, you can buy a pencil.

Educators do this because of "real world" applications.  When I perform at work, I get paid.

The problem is that most reward systems work for kids who wouldn't need the system in the first place.

The "good" kids rack up points/stars/tickets/smiley faces and are able to "buy" pencils, sleepovers, and IPods.

Meanwhile, the "bad" kids lose their tickets/points/stars/smiley faces and as a result, feel angry, hurt, humiliated, and hopeless. And if they are in the hole, why not act out more since there's nothing to lose?

And this happens in the real world too.

The "good" hard workers get the "good" jobs with good pay.  The "bad" workers don't. (Of course we won't let discussion about systemic injustices in poverty, education, etc., play into these conversations ...)

As a parent and an educator I have used reward systems sparingly, a few times.  Mainly I used them for a brief period to encourage specific behavior.  In the classroom, I used rewards to get through the last two weeks of school (because kids check out and "stop" school mentally by then).  In my home, I used a reward system during potty training.

And that is it.


I do not want children, mine or anyone else's, to blindly "behave" in order to get or not get something (because I feel the same way about demerit systems as I do reward systems).

I don't want kids to clean their desks/lockers/rooms because they are going to get a pencil; I want them to do it because they were asked to do it--because it's the "right" thing to do.

Obedience is a high expectation and I think too often we sell our kids short by assuming they HAVE to have some sort of immediate, tangible reward in order to do what is right.

What I fear is that kids become so accustomed to getting something in return for good behavior that they stop doing things because it's the "right thing to do" and do it because they'll get something in return.

And then adults complain about a generation of entitled brats.

It is an inconvenient truth that reward systems have been the subject of much research and such research demonstrates that though reward systems can be temporarily effective, in the long run, such systems result in lowered intrinsic motivation (I'll plug one of my favorite books here: Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A's, praise, and other bribes. by Alfie Kohn).
A lot of people have had the experience of having done something and they loved it—until they started to get paid for doing it, after which they wouldn't dream of doing it again without getting paid. The phenomenon whereby extrinsic motivators cause intrinsic motivation to evaporate is not on the tips of our tongues, but it's not that far from consciousness, either. (click here to read this interview)
You won't see charts or graphs at my house.  You won't hear me bribing M.E. to clean her room with promises of a toy from the dollar store. You will hear expectations for her being spoken loudly and clearly. And you'll see me model it.

I want my children to understand that, socially, there are acceptable and unacceptable behaviors and actions.  I want them to learn to do what is right for right's sake.  Not because I gave them a gold sticker.

Reward systems?  Not at my house.
Photo Source


  1. Since young children naturally are much more extrinsicly motivated than intrinsic (if not entirely), I like to combine the two. I feel like this allows me to appeal to the interests of my kiddo while also nurturing her to become more intrinsicly motivated. When she obeys, I instantly give words of encouragement and praise. When she obeys consistently for a long period of time, I'll talk to her about how proud I am of her and about obeying makes her feel. Then we'll maybe go get a little treat like a dilly bar.

    I'm curious though, what do you do when your kiddos don't obey? It just seems like all punishments are extrinsic (time outs or taking away toys if they leave them out).

  2. My husband and I had a very similar conversation the other night! I am a firm believer in modeling the behavior you want to see. :)

  3. lol I just laughed out loud at your comment above the comments section! You're so crazy!

    Now, I actually feel similarily to how you do on rewards. We have no set rewards system in place, and my kids obey just b/c they've been morally raised to do so. When they go above and beyond (like doing each other's chores just to be sweet) then I VERBALLY praise them and express my deep gratitude. That is all they seem to need! Kids want to be appreciated just like we do.

    I also agree that a rewards system will not work long-term for children that have not been raised with that moral compass that says "do as this adult tells you to" simply b/c they are in capable. That is a wiring issue.. and rewiring is hard. I know.. I have a 6yr old foster son in my home now that I'm working hard at rewiring. Rewards will not work for him... he's a great kid, but I'm not giving a 6yr old a sticker each time he remembers to wipe his snotty nose, wash his hands, or asks politely for things.

  4. I agree! We use encouraging words when Belle does something right or good, but if she does not listen she gets a time out for not doing what is asked of her.

    How did you do potty training?

  5. @ Sarah L--I agree punishments are largely extrinsic. When they disobey we do "Shepherding a Child's heart"/"Grace-Based Parenting strategies." In the classroom--time alone for student to reflect and time to chat with teacher and make things right. Generally a "how to improve" session.

    @Mandy--Love reading your journey!

    @Kelly--Reminds me of a famous quote (not that I remember who said it). "Modeling isn't the main focus of leadership. It's the only focus."

    @Sarah M--For potty training we used rewards out the wazoo for 2 weeks. And then praise. And then it was natural.

  6. I totally agree! As a teacher, I absolutely refuse to do the extrinsic rewards thing. I know others do a ticket/raffle/treasure box system, but I base my management more on respect and high expectations. When subbing, I would stoop to the bribery level if I was only there for a day, which works, but not in the long term. I think it's more about building relationships that counts.

    Funny you post this because I had just asked one of my classes the other day which kids were rewarded with money for good grades and most of the class raised their hands. I was actually appalled and really quite surprised.

    As a parent, I plan on raising my daughter to make good choices because she wants to, or because it is the right thing to do, not because she will get something for it.

    Thanks for the post!


{Reverse Psychology}
I DO NOT like comments. Whatever you do, don't leave me a comment about this post or your thoughts or any connections you have to what I wrote. Seriously, I don't care.
(Did that reverse psychology work???)