Offering rewards – as in “get good marks in school and I will buy you a new toy/game” – is an oft used parenting strategy. The question is, does it actually work? Research shows that for mundane, repetitive tasks, rewards do work. For more complex tasks where nuanced learning is involved the answer is usually “yes” – for a while. In the short-term, it will work. Your child will get better marks, not fight with their siblings, or do whatever is your desired goal. Long-term however, offering rewards as a means to change behaviour for complex tasks does not work. The marks will not be sustained and the fighting will resume. Ever tried a star chart and wondered why it worked for the first month but then stopped working?
The clue as to why this happens is in the statement, “whatever is your desired goal.” The goal is yours, not your child’s. Your child will understand you requesting an outcome that is yours, not theirs, as an attempt to control behaviour.
As Jessica Lahey points out in The Gift of Failure, extrinsic rewards are viewed as attempts to control behaviour, and humans don’t respond well to others trying to control what we do. We are much more likely to stick with something that comes from personal choice. In order for lasting change to happen, the rewards need to be intrinsic; the motivation for the change needs to come from within your child. And they need to have choice – if there is a choice between doing something imposed or something chosen by free will (i.e. either responding to the reward or not responding to the reward) – they will choose free will and not respond to the reward.
Seeing external rewards as an attempt to control isn’t a conscious decision. Seven years olds don’t consciously think, “My parents are trying to make me learn piano by offering me candy if I practice every day of the week. I will do it for five weeks, and then I think I’ll hold out for something bigger.” What happens is that what is seen as motivation by parents is unconsciously seen as an attempt to control behaviour by the child.
Alfie Kohn, a parenting and human behaviour author and educator, writes:
“…an impressive body of scientific research has shown that the more we reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. Now the point isn’t to draw, to read, to think, to create – the point is to get the goody, whether it’s an ice cream, a sticker, or a ‘Good job!’”
So, what’s the answer? How do you encourage the behaviours you would like to see in your child? As suggested above, the key is intrinsic motivation. The pride and sense of accomplishment that come with sticking with and figuring out a tough problem are examples of intrinsic motivation. Mastering a skill and the feeling of competence that accompanies that are powerful motivators.
This doesn’t mean that you walk away from your child when they are faced with challenges. It means that you stay close and present when they are working through them. Think of how you were when your child was learning to walk. You probably watched, held your breath as they wobbled, and offered a steadying hand here and there. You didn’t turn your back nor did you take their steps for them. We need to be able to offer the same scaffolding for our children as they learn and grow in all areas.
Children sense your trust in their ability to solve a problem or work through a challenge. Your belief in them gives them the courage and support they need to tackle a problem and to take the risks needed to solve an issue. As a result of this trust, your relationship with your child will become stronger. The connection between you and your child, knowing that they matter to you and that you have “got their back,” will encourage them to persevere, thereby allowing them to earn the delight and satisfaction of having accomplished a skill or task themselves.
Be warned, this way of parenting takes time and patience and you may be tempted to revert to rewards for what appears to be a “quick fix.” In times like this, take a deep breath and remember that for lasting changes, the motivation needs to be intrinsic. And that ultimately, children who experience mastery, feel competent, and have a sense of belonging, grow up to be capable and decent human beings.
For more on this topic, I highly recommend Jessica Lahey’s book, The Gift of Failure.
Kohn, A. (September 2001). Five reasons to stop saying “good job.” [article]. Retrieved from https://www.alfiekohn.org/article/five-reasons-stop-saying-good-job/
Lahey, J. (2015). The gift of failure. New York, NY: HarperCollins.