One question I get asked from time to time is how I feel about using rewards and incentives to motivate kids to do what we want them to do. You know the drill: You set up a system where, for every day your daughter practices her piano, she gets a sticker, and once she earns a certain number of stickers, she gets a special treat or privilege. When I ask parents why they feel reluctant about using an incentive system like this, they usually name one or more of these reasons:
- “Rewards are externally based, and I want my kids to choose to do the right thing because they’re internally motivated.”
- “I’m afraid my children will become addicted to getting rewarded for every little thing.”
- “I don’t want to reinforce materialism by giving my kids more things.”
- “Why should I reward them for doing what they should be doing anyway?”
- “They’ll expect to receive external rewards or everything they ever accomplish in life. I’ll have to give them a reward for doing whatever it is forever!”
I understand these fears, and I applaud parents for being so intentional about what they’re conditioning their kids to expect. But I’m actually a proponent of using rewards with kids at times for certain things. Here’s why:
If you wait for intrinsic motivation, you may be waiting a long time. After all, how many five-year-olds do you know who feel internally compelled to consistently pick up their dirty clothes, or brush their teeth twice a day?
Reward systems don’t have to stay in place forever. Remember when you were potty training your child, and you offered him a sticker, or a piece of candy, every time he used the toilet? Well, now that he’s a few years older, do you still have to coax him into the bathroom, talk him through the whole experience, then clap like a maniac while handing out an M&M every time he has to go? Of course not. What we reward can become habit, which means that it no longer requires external incentives. Instead, it’s been internalized, so rewards are no longer necessary.
Rewards don’t have to be things. Some of the best rewards are privileges that are good relationship-builders as well. Some rewards I’ve used effectively are an extra story at bedtime, a family movie night, getting to go on a walk after dinner, getting special time playing a game with mom or dad, a water balloon fight, and getting to choose what we have for dinner. Be creative!
You’re reinforcing good habits. When humans experience a reward – either internal or external – for our behavior, we get this little squirt of a chemical called dopamine in our brain. It’s a neurotransmitter that makes us want more; it’s pleasurable, so our brain says “Do that again!” Scientists who study addiction point to these dopamine surges as factors that lead people to maintain a certain habit or addiction, even when they know it’s bad for them. But we can also help produce dopamine squirts that reinforce positive and healthy behaviors—like practicing the piano, or doing something nice for a sibling. The studies on neural plasticity (or how the brain changes) show that mass practice wires the connections in the brain, so if we give kids an external motivation for doing something, we’re encouraging mass practice of the desirable behavior. So, whether we provide a kind word or a star on a chart, and our child feels delighted, we reinforce that that particular behavior is worth doing again. Basically, you’re shaping your child’s behavior and laying the groundwork for more positive results in the future.
Again, I understand why some parents have misgivings about rewarding their kids. I’m especially sympathetic to the concern about kids receiving compensation for doing something they’re already supposed to do. But to a large extent, I believe that the drawbacks are outweighed by the benefits of shaping our kids’ behavior in ways that will help them create good habits and intrinsic motivation in the coming years, and even into adulthood.