We often use reward systems like sticker charts and treat jars to encourage good behavior. Is this counterproductive in the long run? Will my children always feel entitled to an immediate reward when they do a good deed?
Kristin, in Palo Alto, CA
Kristin, this is a great question that I think keeps some parents up at night. OK, some Moms up at night – I’m pretty sure most Dads are too practical to worry about this.
With any discipline strategy there are two questions that matter. Does it work, and what does it teach?
Does it work?
Rewards for expected behavior work with some children really well. Meaning, some kids will do as we’ve asked and change their behavior in exchange for a reward. Some kids couldn’t care less and don’t change their behavior, and others will be involved in the reward system for a very short time and then revert to the old behavior. This seems to be personality based and I don’t think there is a lot you can do to change it.
I’ve seen in my medical practice that it is common to have different reactions to rewards (and punishments) even in the same family. In my house I have two kids who would hop through their day on one foot if they were asked and will try any new behavior if there is a sticker involved. I also have been blessed with two who would say, “Stickers… nah, thanks anyway.” Even for chocolate (the holy grail in our world) they would try something maybe once and then never again if they didn’t feel like it.
What does it teach?
This is the stickier (unable to resist the pun, sorry) question. I agree with you that setting up the habit of receiving a reward for expected behaviors teaches a “What’s in it for me?” attitude.
The social science research on behavior change shows that reward systems (usually called Token Economies in the literature) are effective for only short periods. Over time the motivation decreases even if the rewards don’t change. You end up having to promise bigger prizes for the same tasks.
The biggest problem is this is not great preparation for the world ahead of our children. In life we can earn rewards for consistent, excellent work – sometimes. But these are not handed out each time we accomplish something, they accumulate over time. A good grade, a promotion, a higher wage take time and creativity and persistence to achieve.
When we want our kids to learn good habits we need to expect it of them and link the mastery of a task to a new privilege. For example, you want your daughter to hang up her coat each day when she gets home. After she has mastered this skill you say “I would like to get you a very nice new jacket for this spring because you’ve shown you know how to take care of it.” This is different than saying “If you hang up your coat every day for two weeks I will get you a new coat.” How is it different? The child in the first example will keep hanging up the new coat. The child in the second example will (research shows) be motivated ONLY UNTIL she gets the new coat and then will drop the new habit – and the new coat – onto the floor.
Explaining a “reward” as an earned privilege signals a change in your child’s status. Kids are desperate to be acknowledged as older or more mature and this is a great motivator. From “big boy underpants” to demonstrating the abilities necessary to stay home alone, children will see the benefit of making a behavior change and (here is the best part) realize that they have to keep it up to keep the privilege. THAT is what sets this apart from the sticker chart. This also does a fair job of showing them what adult life is like.
I don’t believe sticker charts are damaging. But I don’t think they do our kids a huge favor in the long run. Used once in a while for a major, short-term change, they can work really well.
Who has had great success with reward systems?