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Rewards: Are They Good or Bad?

Incentivizing positive behaviors in children is helpful but is it healthy?

Published on: October 21, 2016

boy being handed a trophy

Have you ever noticed that parenting trends are like nutrition and health advice? First, there is the next big discovery, and then uh oh, we find out that there are kinks in the argument. Self-esteem was the end-all and be-all of the '80s, and then it was teaching to the learning style of the child. (Perhaps you didn’t know we were way over those big deals?) Unfortunately, parents often read about the exciting new sensations and then miss the less exciting analysis that follows months or even years later that exposes the flies in the ointment.

In this six-part series — this being the sixth and final installment — I’ll revisit common ideas about parenting that have been distorted, misinterpreted or oversimplified and give you the latest information. Here’s the latest:

Parenting myth no. 6: Rewards are bad for kids.

Parenting kids is a really messy and emotional endeavor. Who hasn’t slipped into bad habits or attempts to nag, beg and bribe children to behave the way we want them to?

Like so many parenting approaches, rewards can be misused and overused. Over the last few decades, as parents learned to avoid spanking and other authoritarian methods to discourage their children’s misbehaviors, many slipped into becoming bribe fanatics and reward junkies.

Parenting experts like Alphie Kohn, who often criticizes the use of rewards to influence behavior, make many good points. The most compelling argument against using rewards is that it can rob children of experiencing the internal pleasure (called “intrinsic motivation”) that naturally occurs when you master a skill or challenge. Children can become less motivated if they become dependent on receiving rewards, expect rewards for any effort or lose their motivation for engaging in endeavors for their own sake.

The polemic ratchets up when critics oppose using behavioral management techniques with children altogether and compare it with training rats, dogs and pigeons. Certainly some parents use rewards inappropriately, but to reduce rewards to merely attempts to control, manipulate and seduce is heavy-handed given the research about its benefits when properly used.

Rewards should be a small part of overall positive approach of nurturing children. The most important part is building a  loving, trusting and collaborative relationship — the secure base upon which every other approach of influencing children is grounded. Evidence-based programs that teach effective parenting skills like Triple P, Incredible Years and Family Works, Inc. all include instruction on the effective way to use rewards to incentivize positive behaviors with children.

Despite any potential drawbacks, rewarding kids can inspire kids to try new things. Parents can drop the goody as soon as their children are gratified by the experience itself. It doesn’t always work, but lots of times it doe and it’s definitely worth a try, given the amount of nagging, threatening and conflict associated with those activities of daily living. 

The takeaway

When kids find something that they inherently like doing — such as reading, art or volunteering — rewards can undermine natural motivation. The child might even do those wonderful things less or like doing them less. However, rewards can sometimes incentivize kids to try new things and give them new opportunities. Then you can stop giving rewards when the new engagement supplies its own.

Read more parenting myths

This six-part series will revisit common ideas about parenting that have been distorted, misinterpreted or oversimplified — and provide you with the latest information.

  • Myth no. 1: Time-outs harm kids.
  • Myth no. 2: Kids who under-achieve should to be urged to develop grit.
  • Myth no. 3: Overpraise causes narcissism.
  • Myth no. 4: Focusing on resilience can compensate for a child's stress.
  • Myth no. 5: The growth mindset improves children’s academic performance by praising effort.

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