Without rewards, rules become guidelines that tell our children how to get our attention.
We must reward our children when they are good–chiefly with our time and praise–since there is otherwise no benefit to good behavior. Rewards are far more effective at shaping good behavior than punishments will ever be, because children desire their parents’ love and attention above all.
Rewards are not bribes. Rewards are earned, like a paycheck, for desired behavior. Bribes are given beforehand, when they have not been earned.
What Earns a Reward?
As with rules, what behavior is defined as rewardable depends on the particular child’s personality, age, abilities, and the environment in which they find themselves. (Last month’s blog How to Custom Fit Rules to Your Child outlined what children are capable of at different developmental ages.) Think about the behavior you want, look for it, notice it, and reward it. You will see more of it.
Try not to expect behavior that is improbable for the age of the child. Fifteen-month-olds will not be able to control their tempers. Two-year-olds can begin learning that temper tantrums do not get them what they want. A temper tantrum in a seven-year-old is not attractive.
Consider, also, your particular child’s style and ability. Everyone is better at some things than others, and ability changes with age. Think about where they are now compared to where you want them to be and aim in that direction, taking small, attainable steps.
It is far too easy to ignore good behavior–or just not notice. Your toddler shared his toy?Definitely worth noticing. Your five year old is looking through a book? Fabulous. Teenager being civil? Yay! Good behavior is easy to miss or dismiss with the thought He should act that way all the time. But would you go to work every day if there was no paycheck at the end of the week? Would you work as well if your boss did not appreciate you? The human mind is built to respond to approval. If you want to see more of a particular behavior, reward it.
Small Goal, Small Reward
It is vital that you keep your goals small and of short duration. A trip to Disney for straight As sounds good, but can be soul killing to a child who just can’t get there.
Frequent small rewards are more effective. The child can see the end point and know that it’s possible. “If you wash the dishes, we can read that book together” is immediate and obtainable. “If you clean the whole house, I’ll give you fifty dollars” is distant and improbable, as well as overwhelming. Divide responsibilities into many short sprints rather than an inconceivably long marathon.
Rewards should be immediate. Children have short attention spans, and if too much time passes, they won’t be able to remember what they did or why they’re being rewarded for it.
Immediate rewards create an emotional connection to the behavior that will give them a good feeling when they repeat it. Reading that book made them feel happy, so they will grab another book. They probably won’t remember the hug and smile, but the feeling will be there.
Rewards should also be proportionate. Small people receive small rewards for small actions. Putting away their toys receives a hug and a smile, not a new toy. Finishing their homework should be rewarded by going with Dad to walk the dog, not by getting a new puppy.
Older kids, who generally want larger things, can work toward them by getting points for small acts of fabulousness. Working toward an A in history? Homework done? Points toward that bike can be prominently displayed for each small accomplishment.
Respect your children’s intelligence: if you go overboard, they won’t believe the approval is authentic. If the reward is grandiose, they will know they did not truly earn it and may feel manipulated. They might be insulted that you thought they were so dumb. You may want to jump up and down when you find your teenager doing homework, but a nod and a “Cool, good job,” will be more accepted.
He’s Never Good!
What if you don’t ever see the behavior you’re looking for? Sometimes you can create the behavior you want, and then quickly reward it before they figure out that they didn’t mean to do it. Sneaky, but it works. You are smarter than they are—for a while, at least.
If they’ve been in a timeout, grab that instant before they scowl and say, with a relieved smile, “Good, you’re back! I missed you so much when your evil twin took over! Let’s go do something fun.” Most of the time, they will grab that preemptive reward and run with it.
We do this in the pediatric office when we torture kids. Right after a throat swab, their faces will start to crumble. In that instant, we smile and say, “Wow, you were so brave! I think you were the bravest kid all day! Would you like a sticker?” They are so proud of their bravery that they try to live up to it.
If they are exploring and about to get into something they shouldn’t, stop them before they do and tell them they are wonderful for being so curious. It is so much more fun than yelling at them for breaking that lamp! Interpretation is everything.
If your toddlers are not great at eating veggies, give them the ones they like and will eat, then tell them how great it is that they ate their veggies and that they will make them big and strong. Set up the playing field in such a way that they will succeed and you will have something to reward.
But what rewards do you give for what behavior? Check out What rewards? When? How?