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5 reasons why rewards don't work

5 Reasons Rewards Don’t Work

Dear Heartful,

What are your thoughts about using rewards to motivate kids? I would love your wisdom on trying to get kids to stay at the table, brush their teeth, or do other simple tasks.

Thanks, N.K.

Rewards don't work.

Great question, N.K. Here are five reasons why rewarding your child doesn't work, and what you can do instead.

1. Bribes put your child in control:

When we reward children for their behavior, they quickly realize they hold all the cards.  It fast becomes apparent to them that we care deeply about the behavior at issue, and that we will pay in order to get it.  In the language of economics, we call this “market demand”—and as demand increases, so does the price.  Our children sit in a place of power and can keep demanding more and more for the same conduct.  A cookie in exchange for cleaning up my toys?  How about three cookies?  Five dollars for an A grade?  How about $50? It’s a battle of inflation we aren’t likely to win.

2. Rewards do not demonstrate unconditional love:

A child who is accustomed to getting a reward for “good” behavior may find themselves wondering if their adults love and care about them when they are not earning a reward.  Love becomes more conditioned on acts and behaviors rather than on the innate value of our children.

3. Bribes fail to teach cooperation:

We function better as families, in business, and as a society as a whole when we are willing to cooperate with one another and when we are willing to work together for a desired outcome.  A child raised on bribes and rewards may struggle with this spirit of cooperation, asking themselves instead, “What’s in it for me?”  That doesn’t bode well for the social, emotional, cognitive—or financial—success of the child.

4. Rewards don’t build trust:

When we offer a bribe or reward to a child to do something we want them to, we are essentially telling them we don’t trust them to do the right thing on their own.  This can be extremely discouraging to a child and can undermine the adult-child relationship, as it is not a parenting approach based on mutual respect.

5. You’ll actually get less cooperation:

Research studies demonstrate that when children are bribed or rewarded for behavior, it deprives them of experiencing the inherent rewards of the activity or behavior itself.  The reward implies to children that the activity is unpleasant, thus making it less likely that they will do it without a prize attached.  That means you are likely to get less cooperation, not more. Yikes!

So what can we do instead?

Deep connection with our children is key, as any of us are likely to cooperate when we feel connected, loved, appreciated, and respected.  When our adult-child relationships are based on mutual respect, it is exponentially easier to get a child or teen to tap into their innate desire to be “good.”  We can then look for win-win outcomes, provide expectations of family cooperation and work, host family meetings, be willing to let our children fail, and let natural consequences take effect among other things, all of which will be easier to manage when the connection is strong and unconditional.

So today, can you kick the rewards to the curb, and spend some time connecting with your kid?  It won’t bring overnight success if you’ve gotten used to using rewards and bribes, but it’s a start.  And I’m here to support you if you need it!

Follow-up questions?  Send them my way at christy@theheartfulparent.com

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Christy Keating is a certified parent coach,  positive discipline educator, and motivational speaker. She is the founder and CEO of The Heartful Parent Collective, which includes Heartful Parent Coaching, Savvy Parents Safe Kids, and Heartful Parent Academy.

The mother of two amazing daughters, Christy strives to build a happier, healthier world - one child, one parent, and one family at a time.

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