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Rewards: Good idea or not?

Do you give your kids rewards? If so, what do you use?

Laurie Hunt

 I have such mixed feelings about rewards.  I highly recommend if you hit a wall with a really young child with something like potty training you do whatever it takes. As a matter of fact it is quite possible I promised one of my children a car for her sixteenth birthday if she would use the potty… parts of that dark time I have forgotten…

To me rewards for older children are sort of like everyone getting a trophy or not keeping score in a game.  When my children get older and go off into the big scary world without me no one is going to reward them with “stuff” for good behavior.  There are certain expectations that have to
be met and they should behave that way whether or not they get a sticker for it.  They should behave that way because they have learned it feels right and the ‘reward’ is they will be happy and productive people.

It is that time of the year for many parents to reward for good report cards.  We don’t because the expectation at our house is our children will get a good report card. That is what they have to do, sticker or no sticker.  Now, a good report card doesn’t mean straight A’s– it means they do the best they can and they get good conduct. 

There was a program at one of my daughter’s schools one year that rewarded children for good behavior caught at random times. When this first rolled out I thought it was fabulous. Well as time went on some children who, more times than not, had less than desirable behavior were rewarded for good behavior as a way to motivate them to continue with good behavior.  Sounds reasonable, seemed like a good idea to me to encourage the good behavior, right?  Well, then I heard/saw the other side of it – the quieter child who keep their nose down and behaved well but did not get recognized.  What that quieter child took away from the experience is the child who typically misbehaves was getting a reward (and attention) while the child who always behaves did not get any attention for it.  Interesting.

I do, however, like the idea of rewards for things that are above and beyond.  I like the idea of rewarding a child for something exceptional.  An example of above and beyond is the year one of my daughters was participating in a reading contest at school.  This contest involved her reading certain books she may not have otherwise chosen and taking a test about each book she read. This was certainly above and beyond what was typically expected of her in school that year.  She was also up against children several years ahead of her in school and talked about beating the all time school record.  My husband promised her a Nook if she won the contest that year and a color Nook if she beat the school record.  While the reward may have been expensive we felt it was a great way to support her love of reading and motivate her.  She learned by doing more than what was expected she would be rewarded.  My daughter won the contest and broke the school record.  She got the Nook and has another way to get books she loves to read.

Tasha Schlake Festel

I have always been of the opinion that one should not reward expected behavior. Following the rules and doing as you're told should not earn you something special. I don't get praise for doing exactly what is expected of me at work, nor should I. That's what my paycheck is for.  Therefore, why should my children get prizes for treating others with respect, not hitting, using manners, and putting their dishes in the dishwasher? These are just parts of the job description for being an able-bodied kid in my house. The bare minimum. And in return, they get food, water, clothing, shelter and a host of enriching activities. Their paycheck, if you will. 

I think there are too many rewards in parenting today. Kids are not learning that sometimes the best reward is the feeling of doing a good job, of winning, of doing the right thing. When the smallest tasks are rewarded by "stuff," we forget to look within for motivation. We become driven by prizes not by integrity. In my world, praise is given when deserved and only impressive acts are rewarded.

However, I've recently been forced to reevaluate my position on this topic. We are working through some "behavioral issues" that have surfaced over the years and it was suggested that we create a sticker chart to record good behavior. After X number of stickers are earned, a prize should be given. I scoffed at the idea. I mean, what total crap. First of all, I loathe sticker charts and hate to maintain them. Second of all, shouldn't we be punishing the bad behavior instead of rewarding the baseline? I wasn't looking for angels or anything. I just wanted the basic rules to be followed.

But here was the reasoning behind the approach: We weren't rewarding expected behavior. The behavior I had come to expect was bad behavior. Creating the dreaded and cliched sticker chart was a way to assist in breaking a bad habit and rewarding the hard work required to do so.

The way it was explained to me was a paradigm shift. Punishing the bad had gotten us nowhere. Maybe it was time to view the situation differently. Maybe making the transition to "good behavior" - exactly what I expected - was worthy of praise and reward. I rewarded the kids during potty training. I rewarded them when learning to ride a bike without training wheels. I reward them when they get good report cards. And those are all behaviors I expect. Maybe this was worthy of reward too.

So we hung up a sticker chart and came up with (mostly) non-material rewards. The last thing we need in my house is more stuff so the rewards include things like special time alone with mom or dad, family movie night with popcorn and theater-sized candy, choosing the menu for dinner, family ice cream date, and my personal favorite, a mani/pedi with me.

Maintaining the chart has not been an issue. The kids do it. If they want their rewards, it's up to them to track their progress. The required number of consecutive stickers has gone up as new habits are being formed. The kids are also beginning to feel that internal pride for their good behavior, which will one day (hopefully) completely replace the rewards they're getting from me and their dad right now.

So, maybe there is a place for rewards. I've seen the benefits if used properly. I won't ever be that mom who rewards the kids for wiping their own arses, but I'll add this habit-breaking technique to my bag of parenting tricks and bust it out if necessary. 

Jillian Sallee

When Ryan first learned to read, it was like pulling teeth to get him to sit down and read a book.  He could read well, but he had no interest in the activity at all.  His Legos, the Wii, making his bed, anything else was calling his name.  We decided to try a little experiment.  For every page he read, we promised him a penny (thanks for the idea, Nonnie!).  It took him a little bit to catch on, but the money started piling up and soon he had a goal in mind.  Ryan really wanted the Lego ship Slave I, Boba Fett’s ship.  It was a lot of money and so he started a chart to track his money until he reached his goal.  

We had an underlying reason for paying him to read.  All the experts say that the best way to become a better reader is to read, read, read.   He started off a pretty good reader, but with all the practice he became an amazing reader.  Ryan read all the time and sooner rather than later, he got his lego ship.  The reward of the penny was quickly outweighed by the intrinsic reward of finding a book he loved; enter Harry Potter.

Tom and I don’t always see eye to eye on rewards.  I think they can be used in a positive way for specific things.  Tom thinks that the kids should do things for the intrinsic rewards to their little souls.  I agree with the theory but after the 100th time of breaking up the kids fighting I needed a new plan.  My hope is that the kids will automatically be nice to each other but that is just NOT happening!  We have started a bead system with the kids.  For each nice thing they do to or for each other, they get a bead on their string.  When the string is filled up, they get a reward.  Things like, a tubby in Nonnie and Papa’s tub, a sleepover on their floor with their brother or sister, or a special trip to the park or pool.  This works, the key is remembering to give the bead for the nice deed.  What we are hoping for is that the good deeds will increase and therefore create new habits, hopefully new good habits.  I’m not holding my breath on this one though, I’ve taken to just ignoring them, asking if there is any blood when they come and tell on each other...it’s a work in progress!

For me, rewards have their time and place.  We will continue to navigate the rewards waters, hopefully getting to a point where they are just the perfect little children I know they can be.  Ha...that’s going to come back and bite me!

Regina Martine

When my kids were really little, most of their bad behavior has to be overlooked because they were, well, too little to know any better. Most of the time a “Yay!!” when they did something right or a firm “No!” or “that’s dangerous” or whatever suited the situation when they did something they shouldn’t is really all they needed. Then they get to be about three and they begin to wonder what happens if they don’t do what you say … then the trouble began. And the older the kid, the bigger the trouble.

I prefer to think of these methods as incentives, rather than bribes … but sometimes all that matters is that it works. We have had many, many systems of reward (and punishment) in this house … some more successful than others.

Sticker charts: This method worked best for specific goals like potty training or a kid managing to stay in his own bed all night. For each success, a sticker goes on the chart. After a certain pre-determined number of stickers, the kid gets a prize. For little kids, the prizes need to be small and frequent. Little things like going out for ice cream, or having mom paint your nails, or maybe play a special game. I tried to keep the prizes more about a certain experience rather than a thing or a gift. However, when we were trying to get my son to stop coming into our bed every night, we had a month of stars that ended in the purchase of a Matchbox cars racetrack. What can I say? I was desperate to get that kid out of my bed.

Marble jars: This was the most successful reward method for a long time. Most of my kids are too old for it now, but it works really well for kids from about three to eight years old. Each kid gets his or her own jar. I elaborately painted each one with their names and a line which marked where about 50 marbles would fill. When they filled their jar with marbles, the reward would be to choose an activity to do as a family, like go to the movies or play mini golf. We would give them a marble whenever we caught them “being good.” The best thing about this method is that it wasn’t tied to specific actions by each kid. It could be something like playing nice and not fighting, or putting shoes away without being asked. It always seems to work out better to reward the good behavior than to punish the bad … for a while, anyway.

Then they get older. Now we are stuck trying to think up appropriate punishments rather than putting marbles in a jar every time someone remembers to put their backpack away. After about six or seven years old, kids should understand that they need to do what we ask, or behave a certain way because we have rules in our home and everyone has responsibilities. The reward is a peaceful, happy family. But of course that doesn’t always work out.

Now that our kids are a little older, they are expected to do certain chores around the house and they do get a weekly allowance. We have withheld the allowance when they really slack on the chores. However, only our middle child really cares if she gets allowance or not. Our punishment of choice for my son is to take away games on the Wii or the iPad. For my older daughter, I take away reading. Really. That kid would read all day and all night and it is the only thing she really cares if she loses. I have also made my kids write essays about what they did wrong and why they shouldn’t do it again. I would love to go back to putting marbles in a jar, but I just don’t think that would be the motivating force that it once was.

Melissa Schools

In our nine years of parenting, we haven’t employed many official reward systems. We count ourselves lucky if we remember to have our kids leave their lost teeth under their pillow for the tooth fairy. Case in point, a recently lost tooth sits in a plastic bag, pinned to our bulletin board, patiently awaiting transfer. It’s been over a week. Sigh.

Words like organization, regimen and system are fantasy words for me for some day (in the vague and distant future), but there are a couple of instances where a reward system has brought about a desired and valuable outcome for us.
Our first tried and true reward system comes into play during potty training. None of our sons has ever been swayed by stickers in the least, so we had to raise the stakes. The result is something I lovingly call, “The Chocolate Exchange Program,” inspired, of course, by theconcept of the “needle exchange” for entrenched intravenous drug users. (Hey, Tasha’s not theonly Patch Mama allowed to be irreverent on here, is she?)

The basic premise is this: when the child poops on a potty or toilet instead of in his diaper, said child receives a gift of chocolate candy. This proved simple and surprisingly motivating formy hard-to-bribe kids. A word of caution to those who would like to try this reward system: if you do not wish to accidentally make it a “Lose Your Teeth to Cavities” program, I suggest using single M&M’s, or even the miniature M&M’s, especially if you find your sneaky childtries to manipulate the system by purposely turning what should be one poop session into a few successive visits to the toilet in an effort to increase reward chocolate. We began the program using Hershey’s Miniatures as rewards and for the sake of our son’s teeth, we had to scale way back to the M&M’s.

Our second effort at a deliberate reward system has had some measure of success. We call it the “Good Deed Jar.” I started it when I was in a particular stage with the boys when I felt like all I ever did was say, “No!” to them and punish them for poor behavior choices. Another mom had suggested finding out our kids’ weak spots in terms of what we might be able to take away from them as punishment that would really make a sufficient-enough impression to deter them from similar behavior in the future. The problem for me was that our home atmosphere was already one that felt like we were living in a penal colony, I had taken away SO much. And yet the behavior and morale were not improving.

Remember how having a positive attitude is supposed to improve a situation? Well, what struck me most about this “Good Deed Jar” idea is that it was not tied to punishment in any way. There would be no taking out beans for poor choices or bad behavior, and there absolutely beno dumping out of the entire contents of the jar for particularly heinous behavior, forcing their crushed little spirits to start at square one. It was a welcome change for me and for the kids to have something that allowed me to merely delight in their goodness without worrying for once that I had to keep a tight rein on them lest they grow up to be derelicts.

I also chose to have just one jar for all the kids together, which improved the team-like approach and allowed each child to contribute to the eventual reward according to his own ability and age. No “good deed beans” are awarded for expected behavior, like completing chores or, say, “not hitting each other.”
The boys love getting caught being good and it warms my cold, cold heart to see them thinking up things they can do for me or each other with the express intention of earning a “good deedbean.” I think it has made them more cognizant of the importance of being kind and considerate
to others around them and it’s been wonderful to see them shine with pride when they’ve earned a bean- and we haven’t even gotten to the big reward they’ll receive when the jar is finally full. At the rate they are going, I better hurry up and figure out what the reward will be!

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