Most parents use a reward system for kids, 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.
So I made my own version: I drew stars on his “pee pee poster.” These stars taped to the bathroom mirror were meant to encourage continued potty-training success.
But even though I wasn’t handing him a physical reward like stickers or candy, I found that even drawing stars on a poster became ineffective in the long run. In fact, it wasn’t until I did away with the pee pee poster that potty training actually took a turn for the better.
Why you shouldn’t reward kids
Not all rewards are terrible. We reward ourselves for menial tasks we dread, or for an uphill struggle finally accomplished (like a new pair of jeans after losing weight).
But using rewards as a way to motivate kids can kill their inner drive and make it hard for parents to keep up. As I saw with my pee pee poster, these rewards can backfire and actually cause more harm than good.
Check out the following reasons why we shouldn’t reward kids:
1. Kids will get joy from external, not internal, rewards
Rewards tie our satisfaction and motivation to external sources. For most of us employed people, we work (the action) for pay (the reward). If our employer stops paying us, we’d probably stop working.
The same holds true with kids. Give an incentive to do something, and they’ll do it. But remove the incentive, and you now have an unwilling child refusing to pee in the potty.
Or take chores and money. A child who had refused to do chores, will 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 self.
I wouldn’t blame her, either. Actions stop when the rewards stop. But if we raise our kids to contribute because of the joy and pride of the act itself, then the rewards are internal. They won’t need rewards to clean their room. Their own pride (and even the expectation to clean their room) is enough to convince them.
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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 those stickers—they’re so shiny!
A few days or weeks later, those stickers lose their luster. Maybe Mom and Dad aren’t as excited anymore. Or even if they are, what’s new?
Motivation wanes as the rewards themselves become… boring. Now parents need to the ante. Maybe instead of stickers, we now need candy. Yes, we’ll try candy… Until even that loses its appeal.
3. Rewards downplay goodwill
At a party I attended, one of the guests asked around 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.
I would hope that should any of my loved ones need help, that my kids would do so willingly. No “what’s in it for me?” or personal, financial gains necessary.
Goodwill and graciousness are among some of the values we shouldn’t bribe or buy. We do things 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 promote. 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” then 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. But if you reward kids with gifts for good grades, the focus becomes the gift, not the value in earning a good grade. We’ve killed that inner drive to learn and the desire to do a job well done.
Instead, kids focus on the new bike or the trip to Disneyland as the motivation for studying. The hard work? The knowledge? Those become the means to the end.
What to do instead of offering rewards
So, what can you do instead? If not rewards, what are our options? And are there appropriate times when we can apply rewards?
1. Evaluate whether the tasks are age- or stage-appropriate
Tasks need to be age-appropriate in order for kids to actually do them. Before using rewards as an incentive to use the potty, think about whether your child even at the right age to do so. Even if other kids his age are already using the potty, he may not be ready to do the same.
Also, give age-appropriate chores. Stick to simpler chores a child can do.
2. Explain why the action is important
My kids haven’t been cooperative with returning their blocks to their storage box. I could see why—the task isn’t exactly up there with the fun they were just having with playing. But instead of rewards, I try to explain the value of putting the blocks back, and why it’s important.
“We put the blocks 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 reward—but not an external one. And one that’s related to the task (e.g. putting toys away = not losing toys). We’re highlighting the value and the real reason he should do the task.
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 to limit praise (praise is, after all, an external reward). But pointing out my son’s own pride after a job well done helps him realize that rewards can come from within.
When we say how they seem to enjoy what they’re doing, we remind them that tasks don’t always need a bribe. They can—and should—contribute simply for the joy and even the 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 when your child deserves it. Doling out “good job”s and rewards can backfire and lose their gusto.
Instead, come to expect good behavior. Kids learn they need to brush their teeth even without their parents cheering them on. It’s just what we do. It’s necessary.
If anything, find different ways to reward kids for good behavior. You might simply acknowledge how happy she made her brother feel, or that she can now go down the slide all by herself. Keep them simple and appropriate—don’t praise for ordinary feats.
5. Find underlying issues
Let’s say a child doesn’t want to go to school in the mornings. Our first thought shouldn’t be to reward her if she puts her shoes on right away.
Instead, see why she might be holding back. Could there be changes in the school that may have made her not want to go? Is she feeling unwell? Find underlying issues that may be causing her to resist in the first place.
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, no way would I willingly wash the dishes if someone asked me to. The same is true for our kids.
Remind them 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 kids when you’d have better luck finding the right time.
7. Offer to help
The next time you feel obligated to reward kids for cleaning up their toys, offer to help instead. Having your company makes the task more fun.
I also notice that helping my son makes the task seem less of a big deal. It’s just another thing we do instead of a whole new battle to face off with each other.
8. Relax your standards
Kids may not listen because we’ve set our standards too high. One of the quickest ways to make your kids feel bad is to micromanage and criticize what they’ve done. Keep your cool if they don’t hang their clothes as neatly as you do.
Instead, appreciate their willingness to help and correct them only if needed.
9. Show your appreciation
Begin a lifelong habit of showing gratitude towards your kids. Thank them when they surprise you with the behavior and values you’d like them to continue. Everyone likes to feel appreciated, especially when they weren’t expecting anything in return.
You’re teaching the family values and expectations so you don’t have to use rewards.
There will be moments even in our own lives when we need that reward. As much as we wish we could have a positive attitude 24/7, that isn’t possible.
Rewards can be helpful for quick fixes when nothing else will do. Sometimes rewards are fun. We like to see our kids’ faces light up when we drink a smoothie to celebrate a long shopping trip.
And other times they’re the natural consequence of a job well done. A child who doesn’t dilly dally with putting on his shoes gets to spend more time playing at the park.
As with most things, moderation is key. Each situation is different. Each child is different. We just need to make sure that rewards are simply that—little treats once in a while, not a crutch to rely on all the time.
Limit rewards and use them in moderation, not as a crutch where nothing gets done if your child don’t get a gold star.
Get more tips on how to encourage your child:
- 3 Techniques to Help Your Child Improve Focus
- Why It’s Not Good to Say Good Job (and What to Say Instead)
- How to Properly Use Praise to Encourage Your Child’s Potential
- Teach Your Child the Value of a Job Well Done
- How to Get Kids to Do Chores (Without the Constant Reminders)
Don’t forget: you can join my newsletter and get my list of Toddler Tasks and Chores to encourage self-sufficiency and independence! Download it below—at no cost to you: