Quality time with parents is enough good behavior motivation for many preschoolers.

Do Kids Need Rewards?

by Tamara Christine Van Hooser

As a parent, the suggestion to withhold reward and praise from the apple of your eye may shock you. Purdue University’s Child Development and Family Studies department encourages parents to use rewards and praise every day because they work better than punishment, and make everyone feel good and family life more fun. On the other hand, Alfie Kohn, well-known writer and speaker on human behavior, education and parenting, and author of "Punished By Rewards," asserts that rewards are counterproductive to building self-esteem and good parent-child relationships. Therefore, it behooves parents considering whether kids need rewards that rewards, whether material or verbal, have positive and negative effects as you navigate the challenge of parenting your little one.

Pros and Cons

Reward systems are such a common feature of raising young children, touted as good parenting practice by Purdue's CDFS department, that many parents might not have considered the long-term effectiveness of the practice. While reward systems, whether consisting of star charts, verbal praise, toys or favorite foods, undoubtedly produce more smiles than punishment, they work best to produce short-term compliance with your demands. This can be useful at getting your child to do infrequent or unpleasant tasks. However, a reward offer can imply that there is something inherently undesirable about the task and increase resistance to doing it, reports Jan Hunt, parenting counselor and director of The Natural Child Project. She goes on to explain that rewards also interfere with a child's independent thinking development, self-esteem, self-confidence, problem-solving ability, perseverance and self-directed motivation. Furthermore, when parents depend on a reward to produce the desired behavior, they can miss relationship-building opportunities to understand what is really going on with their small fry. Alfie Kohn further explains that young children soon figure out that any reward can be a form of manipulation and control, and either stop complying when they don't receive a reward or demand bigger and better rewards to obtain their compliance.

Rewards as Motivation

So on one side, you hear experts singing the praises of frequent rewards, whether verbal or material, while the other side asserts that rewards and praise are actually manipulative and punitive for kids. Psychologists Lepper, Greene and Nisbett found in their study, "Undermining Children's Intrinsic Interest with Extrinsic Reward,” that rewards reduce motivation for completing a task about which a child is already enthusiastic. The preschoolers who were promised a reward actually performed their tasks more poorly than those who did not anticipate a reward.

Rewards vs. Praise

You may be asking yourself, "OK, I understand that bribing my cherub into good behavior with material gifts sends the wrong message. But what about praising her? Everyone needs encouragement and what kind of parent would I be if I never offered any supportive words to my child?" It's true that encouraging your little sunbeam is the right thing to do but there is a difference between manipulative praise and spontaneous positive feedback. Robin Grille, a private relationship psychologist from Sydney, Australia, encourages parents to look carefully at their own motivations when offering praise. Consider whether you are "trying to seduce the child into pleasing you or making [you] proud, [or] whether it springs from your heart because you are genuinely glad to see the child accomplish something that pleases him or genuinely delighting in her being." Your little one will quickly pick up on the difference. Grille continues, "That which is intended to 'connect,' is the most reinforcing."

Raising Responsible Children

Boiled down to basics, it becomes a question of whether you would rather produce rote compliance with rules and expectations in your tot or empower him to, in Ms. Hunt's words, "gain self-motivation through a sensible appraisal of inherent rewards and values." Mr. Grille warns parents against unintentionally teaching their youngsters to be "reward-addicts, crowd-pleasers, and recognition-seekers" but rather encourage them to be self-motivated, faithful to themselves and follow their interests by expressing appreciation for who they are as a human being. Children who learn to trust their own judgment and choose responsible behavior independently acquire many social-emotional life skills that prepare them for the real world. Ms. Hunt recommends that parents demonstrate trust, patience and gentleness instead of rewards and punishments so that children are free to "own" their learning and personal growth.

About the Author

Tamara Christine has written more than 900 articles for a variety of clients since 2010. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in applied linguistics and an elementary teaching license. Additionally, she completed a course in digital journalism in 2014. She has more than 10 years experience teaching and gardening.

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