Should my kid get a reward for cleaning their room? Or clearing the table? What about sharing toys with their sister, or doing homework, or reading a book?
Whether your kids are toddlers or teenagers, you’ve probably asked something like this. The idea of rewarding kids for good behavior has come under quite a bit of fire: We’ve been told that giving our kids rewards will zap them of their inherent motivation. They’ll become overly focused on material objects. It’ll make them lazy, maybe even manipulative. Who wants to sign up for that?
But as parents, we also need effective tools to shape our kids’ behavior. It’s nice to think that logic will entice a toddler to play nicely, or get a reluctant reader to pick up a book, or motivate a teenager to study. But anyone who has attempted to change their kids’ behavior with words alone knows that this is easier said than done. So what can parents do?
It turns out, the research on incentives for children is much less black and white—and the dreaded “bribery” might have garnered an unnecessarily bad reputation. We’re not saying you should pay your kids for every last thing they do. But incentives don’t have to be big things—and when they’re used effectively, they can be helpful items in the parent toolkit.
What You Need to Know:
Rewards are about making new habits. Done right, reward systems work by enticing your child to adapt their behavior until the new behavior becomes normal. Over time, they’ll begin to experience the natural benefits of that behavior—and wean themselves off the rewards.
Much of the research on incentives has been misinterpreted. Several large-scale studies on incentives have been used to back up the idea that reward systems are damaging for kids. But as this helpful article explains, these studies may be less applicable for parents than we think. For one thing, they tend to focus on activities that the research subjects already find enjoyable. Most of us aren’t rewarding our kids for things they love to do, because, well, they already love doing those things. Another study examined outcomes on behavior after receiving a reward once. But since reward systems work by changing habits over time, one reward on one occasion is very unlikely to have a positive effect.
There is evidence that incentives can be effective motivators for schoolwork, but they need to be tied to other supports. For example, a study of financial incentives for students who took AP exams was shown to increase the number of students taking AP courses. But in this particular experiment, cash rewards were tied to additional resources, like tutoring, that also supported students—and teachers received financial rewards for their students’ performance, too.
Positive parenting matters. None of this is to say that rewards are a must-have part of any individual parent’s approach to childrearing. You might find that incentives aren’t right for you and your kid. But we know that positive parent-child relationships can have an influence on children’s behavior, and research shows that rewards can be part of those relationships. After all, there are many times when we have to shape our kids’ behavior. (It’s part of the job description, isn’t it?) So for many of us, an effective reward system for good behavior—instead of or alongside punishments for bad behavior—is an important tool in our parenting arsenal.
What You Can Do:
When it comes to schoolwork, focus on effort, not outcomes. The question of whether students should be offered rewards—including, in some school systems, cash—for getting good grades or doing well on tests is a complicated one. The research on this shows mixed outcomes. But it also suggests that there are more effective and less effective ways to structure an incentive related to school. Students are more likely to respond positively to a reward if they feel they have some control over whether or not they earn it. So if your child is dragging their feet ahead of an English test and you want to motivate them, for example, tie the reward to time spent studying, not their final score.
Get the timing right. Research shows that incentives lose their value if they’re offered with a delay. In other words, for a reward to work, it has to be fresh in a child’s mind when they’re being asked to adjust their behavior. In fact, a study of the impact of both monetary and non-monetary incentives on students’ test performance showed that students performed better when they were able to look at their reward while they took the test.
Choose rewards that are meaningful for your particular child. A reward doesn’t have to be large, but it should meet three basic criteria: your kid cares about it, it’s inexpensive, and you don’t mind doling it out regularly. It doesn’t have to be a material object, either. Since you’re in charge, you can choose an extra book at bedtime, a few minutes of extra screen time, or a trip to the playground after school. It’s all about the branding.
Make it easy to earn rewards—and keep moving the goal post. Be specific about the goal, so your child knows exactly what they need to do to earn a reward. It should be really easy at first, particularly for younger kids. They shouldn’t have to work too hard to get that first taste of success. As the behavior becomes more normalized, you can extend the goal to make it more challenging.
Don’t incentivize everything, but do focus on behaviors that you really want to change. Now, we hear you asking, will incentivizing schoolwork take the joy out of learning? Will offering rewards for playing with a little sibling rob them of their sense of family commitment? Ultimately, that’s a personal parenting decision. And only you can decide what you’re comfortable with in your own home. But if you do want to offer that reward, don’t worry too much: The research suggests that when used sparingly and effectively, rewards can have a positive impact on kids’ behavior—without turning them into little monsters who expect a paycheck for picking up a book.