Two weeks ago I wrote 5 Truths: Why Rewards Work. I wrote about how, without rewards, kids will use rules as guidelines to get our attention.
That’s bad. We don’t want that.
Why Rewards Work outlined how rewards need to be small and given frequently for small, possible accomplishments. It discussed that rewards need to be immediate, so that the happy feeling is linked to the good behavior. It argued that they be proportionate, because we don’t want to raise greedy brats.
I may have not used those exact words…
It talked about the sorts of behavior that ought to win a reward (pretty much anything that is not bad behavior).
It stressed that rewards are given after the good behavior, not before (that would be a bribe).
But what should the rewards be?
Since the most important thing to your children is always going to be your attention (yes, even that teenager), your attention is the best reward. Watch your young artists draw pictures and listen to them tell you about their masterpiece when they are done. Wear that pasta necklace with pride. Go to soccer games and recitals. If you show up, you must care and they must be doing something of which you are proud. If you do not show up, they must matter less to you than whatever else is taking up your time.
Running a close second to attention is praise. And it’s free! Tell them what a good job they did and that you appreciate their hard work. Tell them you’re proud of them. Then add affection to that praise. Why would you tell them they’re wonderful and not give them hugs? Who could resist?
Special time with Mom or Dad is a great reward for both munchkin and parent. Parents don’t get many opportunities to spend time with just one child. For a small accomplishment, the reward can be reading a favorite book together, playing catch, or anything else they’ve been bugging you to do. A moderate reward could be building a puzzle together or time at the park or library. Something larger could be a trip to a museum or sporting event.
Since older children tend to want larger things and have a longer attention span, they can earn points toward a larger reward. Rewards can be anything you would not normally buy them: something they want but do not need. Make it something possible, and display the points prominently where they can see their progress (their attention span may not be as long as you hoped).
Problems coming up with a good reward? Ask your munchkin–they will have ideas. They want a new skateboard? You want an A in math. Figure out what that A will take, and you can give points for performance on homework, quizzes, and tests. Even if they miss the A, your kids will have learned more math than they might have otherwise.
They will also have all those points amassed toward that skateboard, and science is coming.
Be wary of food rewards. A special dinner made up of their favorite foods can be lovely. Sugary treats can be the makings of disaster. Food is for nourishment, not emotional support and not for power.
Material Girls… and Boys
When using material objects as rewards, be especially careful to make the object proportionate to the accomplishment. You do not want a child who expects a toy for being good at the grocery store. Baseline good gets hugs, appreciation, time, and pride—not toys. Tantrums negate the good behavior and are never rewarded.
Rewards are absolutely essential if you want good behavior from your children. Attention, affection, and your time are more valuable as rewards than anything monetary. Rewards should be frequent, small, and in proportion to the behavior. Larger rewards for older children should be earned over time with points (note how I just changed the big reward into many small ones), which can be transferred to another goal if the first proves to be too hard.
Be brave, and reward yourself, too, when you do well. Just keep in mind that your children are watching; model good rewards as well as good behavior. No junk food!