Rewards: Bribery or Behaviorism at Its Best?

The Art and Science of Rewards

 A reward system has dug my kids out of many a behavioral rut in our almost decade of parenting. That’s why reading the recent warnings about using rewards with children has simply confused me. I looked more deeply into what was going on, and I found the exact problem I set out to take on as the Art and Science of Mom – a well-intentioned misunderstanding of research findings. This misuse of research leads to conclusions that aren’t quite right about how to parent in a way that works best – for us and for our children.

From Screaming and Launching Random Objects to Stars and Checkmarks

When I shared my views on positive parenting, I described the preschool pick-up nightmare that was the culmination of two weeks of my 4-year-old escalating with out-of-control behavior. He was screaming quite intensely at the slightest frustration at least once a day, throwing every object he could get his hands on in these fits to punctuate his emotion with force.

We have our ups and downs with his tantrums, but even for him, this was too much. We had a good guess about the emotional reasons – change and transitions are hard for him, and he was adjusting to school after the 2-week winter break, AND his main teacher had gone on maternity leave. Understanding all of this and cranking up our emotional responsiveness to these behaviors was just not making a dent of change.

The evening of the infamous preschool pick-up, my husband spearheaded a new behavior plan. Although we emphasized the reward side of the plan, it also had built-in consequences.

He would start each day with three stars written on our kitchen dry erase board. If he threw objects or screamed uncontrollably, he would lose a star. If he ended the day with at least one star, he earned a check mark for that day (also written on the board). Three checkmarks then earned him the ultimate reward of playtime with one of us before bedtime (although I was technically a choice, Daddy is always the real choice).

I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that these escalating, seemingly out-of-control behaviors stopped on Day 1 of our plan. Of course we coached him to use skills to calm himself down and TELL us what was wrong instead of screaming and launching random objects. Lo and behold – he could totally do it.

The Science of Rewards Untangled

Our children sometimes become stuck in certain negative behaviors and need our help to reset those associations.

Consistent with the research on using rewards with children to reduce problem behaviors, the best outcome for us is it helped our relationship with our 4-year-old, as our interactions with him immediately became more positive.

Speaking of research, I’m here to tell you what decades of study actually tell us about the use of rewards with kids, and how it all got confused. I offer counterpoints to each specific warning I have seen about using rewards with kids, clarify what research has shown, and share what I have experienced in more than a decade of working with families.  

Warning: Research has shown that using rewards actually DECREASES the desired behavior.

Reality: This is true, in studies of mostly adults doing behaviors they already enjoy. The idea here is that once we get a reward for something we intrinsically like to do, it decreases the intrinsic motivation because of adding external motivation (like if I got PAID to write . . . never mind, I think I would be just fine with that). This is a very different scenario than adding incentives for an important behavior that a child has struggled to do consistently.

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Warning: Children will expect a reward for all positive and expected behaviors rather than just doing what they should do naturally.

Reality: A reward system should be targeting a specific behavior problem or concern, not adding a positive incentive to something they already do just fine most of the time. The point is that whatever behavior you are rewarding is NOT being done naturally by the child, even if we think they should be doing it.

Warning: Children will not learn the new behavior; they will learn to want a reward.

Reality: Again, 99% of a child’s behaviors are not getting rewarded (except of course by praise and encouragement and other natural rewards in the environment). The purpose of the reward system is to shape a desired behavior. Will my 4-year-old never scream like an animal or throw everything on a desk again? I’m sure he will, but our reward system helped add that extra motivation for him to use skills he already has to stop before he acts MOST of the time.

Warning: When the reward goes away, so does the motivation for the behavior.

Reality: I have actually seen the opposite of this in hundreds of examples over years of my clinical work, and it’s backed up by research on problem behaviors in childhood. The amazing part of this process is that the reward can be faded over time, as the new behavior becomes more habitual. The idea is the child is unable to do something completely via internal motivation, so the external motivator of a reward is the starting point to build up a new habit, which then becomes internally motivated over time. Trust me, life happens and distracts everyone, and parents and children sort of move on to the next problem.

Warning: Rewards foster a sense of entitlement.

Reality. The “E” word is all we need to run as far away as possible! Who wants to raise entitled kids?? Don’t worry – if it happens, it’s not because of using rewards in childhood to shape more positive behaviors. Hopefully you already know the answer here after reading all of the above: rewards are selectively and sparingly used for specific problems. Your children will be doing a million other behaviors with zero EXTRA reward, so this does not build a sense of entitlement. I have never witnessed this in my years of working with families on behavior plans.

Rewards for You, Me, and Everybody!

Let’s also remember that you and I are operating on a reward system ALL THE TIME. What do we get for working all week? A paycheck. What do we do after a hard day of parenting? Possibly reward ourselves with a glass of wine or a big bowl of ice cream or mindless TV. Or all three. In addition to these tangible rewards, our environments are full of natural rewards for adults and children alike.

So when do our children need us to take action above and beyond their environment’s natural rewards? When they become stuck in certain negative behaviors and need our help to reset those associations. My son felt frustration magnified by recent transitions, it felt like a release of that frustration to scream and throw, so he started doing it every time he felt it. It was our job to help his brain change that association to a more positive “when I feel frustrated, I can cry, keep my body calm, and tell Mom and Dad what’s wrong.” Everyone wins.

Is it always that easy? No. Has my own son had some relapses since the first few weeks of success? Yes.

That’s why next week I will outline the Art of the Behavior Plan with specific, evidence-based guidelines on how to effectively target problem behaviors with rewards and consequences, AND what to do if it doesn’t work. Not only do I believe this both as a practicing psychologist and (veteran?) parent, the top experts in child psychology agree.

Resources

Go Ahead, Heap Rewards on Your Kid, Slate.com

Using Incentives or Rewards to Motivate Positive Behaviors in Your Child