Most parents use a reward system for young children, from potty training to chores. Here’s why you shouldn’t reward kids (and what to do instead).
Stars. Candy. A new toy. I swore I wouldn’t resort to rewards when my toddler was potty training.
But I still found myself making my own version: I drew stars on his “pee pee poster.” The poster, taped to the bathroom mirror, was meant to encourage continued potty-training success.
For a while it worked… that is, until the glamor and novelty of the stars eventually wore off.
Because even though I wasn’t handing him stickers or candy, I learned that even drawing stars on a poster became ineffective in the long run. Accidents resumed, fights ensued—not exactly the progress I had been hoping for.
In fact, it wasn’t until I did away with the poster completely that potty training finally took a turn for the better.
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Why you shouldn’t reward kids all the time
Not all rewards are terrible, of course.
Milestone rewards can mark finishing tasks or accomplishing an uphill struggle (we do this ourselves when we buy a new pair of jeans for losing weight, for instance). Kids with support needs rely on and respond well to typical rewards. And certain types of rewards are still effective, as you’ll later learn.
But for the most part, using typical rewards as a way to motivate kids risks killing their inner drive and makes it harder for parents to keep up. As I saw with our pee pee poster, these rewards can backfire and actually have negative effects.
Check out the following reasons why you shouldn’t reward kids, followed with what to do instead:
1. Kids get joy from external rewards
The most obvious effect of relying on a reward is that it ties motivation to external sources. For most of us employed people, we work (the action) for pay (the reward). If your employer stopped paying you, you’d probably stop working.
The problem is how this translates to kids for actions that shouldn’t come from extrinsic motivation.
Give your child an incentive to do something, and she’ll eagerly do it. But remove the incentive, and you now have an unwilling child refusing to pee in the potty or clean her room.
Or take chores and money. Even if she had refused to do chores in the past, she’ll now dust, mop, wash, and fold with the promise of five dollars. But take away that five dollars, and she’s back to her old habits. I don’t blame her, either—actions stop when the rewards stop.
But if you raise her to help because of the joy and pride of the act itself, then the rewards become internal. She won’t need rewards to clean her room. Her pride, expectations, and even the standards she has set for herself are become intrinsic motivation on their own.
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2. Standards keep getting raised
Rewards work especially well in its early stages: Those stickers on the potty chart look awesome! Mom and Dad’s reaction for each pee or poop is priceless! And that candy—they’re so yummy!
Except a few days or weeks later, those stickers lose their luster. Mom and Dad aren’t as excited anymore. Even the candy isn’t worth “giving in” and sitting on the potty.
Motivation wanes as the rewards become boring, forcing you to up the ante. Instead of stickers and candy, you now need to buy her dollar toys (until even that loses its appeal).
3. Rewards downplay goodwill
At a social gathering I attended, a friend asked if anyone would help her move her belongings to her new house.
“I’ll do it if you pay me,” one of the teenagers chimed in. He said it with a chuckle, but I also knew he was dead serious about the offer. That should she ask him to help her move without pay, he’d be less inclined to do so.
That’s not exactly how I want to raise my kids, though. Should anyone need help, I’d want them to do so willingly, without a “What’s in it for me?” mentality.
Goodwill and graciousness are among some of the values we shouldn’t bribe or buy. We help because it’s the right thing to do, no matter how indirect the rewards of doing so may be.
Rewards don’t build values—at least the ones we want to nurture. We want kids to value a clean room, get along with their siblings, or be polite. We don’t encourage those values when we only highlight the reward. With rewards, the “value” becomes the new toy, the movie they get to watch, or the money they earn.
4. Rewards extinguish passion and inherent joy
Some kids like studying or working hard because they love the topic or the feeling of accomplishment. But if you reward them with gifts for good grades, the focus becomes the gift, not the value in learning something new. The inner drive to learn and the desire to do a job well done get overshadowed.
Instead, they focus on the new bike or the ice cream cone as the motivation for studying. The hard work? The knowledge? Those simply become the means to the end.
What to do instead of offering rewards
Focusing too much on rewards can reap short-term benefits but at the cost of long-term habits and values. Offering rewards has its place, but perhaps not as often as you might think.
So, what can you do instead? If not rewards, what are your options? And are there appropriate times when we can apply rewards? Take a look at these alternatives to offering rewards that can still motivate your child:
1. See whether the tasks are age- or stage-appropriate
Do you struggle with getting your child to listen and comply with what you’re asking her to do? She might be resisting because the task isn’t age- or stage-appropriate.
For instance, before using rewards as an incentive to use the potty, think about whether she’s even at the right age to do so. Even if other kids her age are already using the potty, she may not be ready to do the same.
Is she making too much of a mess in her room? She might still need help with cleaning up a few items, like putting things away in hard-to-reach places. Stick to chores at or slightly above her level.
2. Explain why the task is important
Let’s say your child isn’t being cooperative with returning her craft supplies to the storage box. You could see why—cleaning up isn’t exactly as fun as using them.
But instead of offering a reward, explain the value of the task—and why it’s important.
“We put the craft supplies back into the box so that [we can find them easily later / we don’t step on them / your little sister won’t put them in her mouth].”
The focus is on a type of reward (she won’t lose the craft supplies), but not an external one (I get to eat a cookie). And the reward is related to the task (putting the supplies away = she won’t lose any of them). You’re highlighting the value and the real reason she should do the task.
And let the natural consequences speak for themselves. Putting her shoes on quickly (instead of whining and taking a long time) means she gets to spend more time at the park.
3. Encourage pride at a job well done
“You did it!” I said to my son after he remembered to wash his hands after dinner. I try not to over-praise (praise is, after all, an external reward). But pointing out his pride after a job well done helps him realize that rewards can come from within as well.
When you notice your child enjoying or feeling proud of a task, use that as an opportunity to remind her of how she feels. She’ll remember that tasks don’t always need a bribe, especially when she draws a positive feeling from within.
And that she can—and even should—contribute and do a task simply for the joy and expectation for doing so. Just as the value of a task can serve as a reward, the pride in a job well done can do the same.
4. Don’t over-praise
At the same time, reserve your praise for once-in-a-while, genuine moments. Doling out “good job”s and rewards can backfire and lose their gusto when they’re used too often.
Instead, come to expect good behavior. Your child will learn that he needs to brush his teeth even without his parents cheering her on. It’s just what we all do, a necessary task expected of everyone.
And if you’re wondering when it’s appropriate to praise him, rest assured it’ll come naturally. Feeling “forced” to praise him for brushing his teeth is likely overkill. But saying, “Yay, you did it!” when he rides his bike for the first time probably isn’t.
If anything, find different ways to praise him for good behavior. You might acknowledge how happy he made his brother feel, or that he can now go down the slide all by himself. Keep them simple and appropriate instead of praising for ordinary tasks.
5. Find underlying issues
Your child’s resistance to doing a task can be challenging, but it can also mask underlying issues she might be having.
Let’s say she fights you about doing her school work. Instead of offering a reward or incentive to get her to do the work, ask yourself why she might be holding back. Could recent changes in school making her feel reluctant and upset? Has she been cooped up indoors too long?
Find underlying issues that may be causing her to resist in the first place. These will be tougher to identify but will resolve other issues that can often mask it.
6. Pick a good time to ask
We all get in our moods where doing something we have to do just doesn’t feel good. If I’m in the middle of a good book, I wouldn’t exactly want to wash the dishes, even if someone asked me to.
The same is true for kids.
Sometimes, the best way to get your child to do something is simply to pick a good time to ask. Remind her about chores during the best times, not when she’s hungry, tired, or focused on a project. You don’t have to use rewards to convince her when you’d have better luck finding the right time.
7. Offer to help
Your child’s resistance could stem from a simple power struggle: she doesn’t like being told what to do all the time.
The next time you feel obligated to reward her for, say, cleaning up her toys, offer to help instead. Having your company makes the task more fun and puts the two of you on the same side. Helping her makes the task seem less of a big deal—it’s just another thing you do instead of a battle to face off with each other.
8. Relax your standards
Your child might not listen because you’ve set your standards too high. In fact, one of the quickest ways to make him feel less inclined to do a task is to micromanage and criticize what he’s done.
He might not hang his clothes as neatly as you or place the dishes in the dishwasher with much strategy. But think of this not so much as getting things done, but as a way for him “practice” and get better at eventually doing them on his own.
Appreciate his willingness to help, and correct him only if needed. And even if he doesn’t hang his clothes correctly, let a fallen shirt he now has to hang up again serve as the teacher to do better next time.
9. Show your appreciation
Begin a lifelong habit of showing gratitude toward your child. Thank her when she surprises you with the behavior and values you’d like her to continue. Let her know how much she has helped you, and how much you enjoy spending time with her.
Everyone likes to feel appreciated, especially when they weren’t expecting anything in return. You’re also teaching your family values and expectations so you don’t have to rely on rewards.
Rewards have their place, especially in moderation. But used too often, and they can have unwanted consequences, especially in the long run.
Your child might rely too much on external rewards like money and sweets, instead of internal ones that never get depleted. The standards keep getting raised, and old rewards get boring and lose their luster. Rewards also downplay innate goodwill and extinguish passion and inherent joy.
Thankfully, you can apply other techniques to get her to listen instead of using rewards.
For starters, see whether the task is even age-appropriate, and explain why it’s important to do. Encourage pride at a job well done instead of over-praising for every little thing. Find underlying issues that might be buried beneath, and pick a good time to ask.
Offer to help so that you’re both on the same side, and relax your standards about how she eventually does the task. And lastly, show your appreciation when you do notice her behaving well to encourage her to continue doing the same.
As with most things, moderation is key. Each situation is different. Each child is different. Make sure that rewards are simply once in a while special treats, not a crutch—or a gold star on a pee pee poster—to rely on.
Get more tips:
- How to Properly Use Praise to Encourage Your Child’s Potential
- What to Do if Your Child Shows Off to Others
- How to Get Kids to Do Chores (Without the Constant Reminders)
- What to Do When Your 3 Year Old Won’t Poop on the Potty
- How to Stop Tattling
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