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Rewards Without Psychological Damage: An Essential Tool for Parents

Happy Baby, reward for doing something right!It's common practice nowadays to pooh-pooh punishment in favour of never-ending positivity, which for most people brings to mind rewards and encouragement. The truth is that rewards can also be highly damaging, destroying motivation and create the very opposite behaviour that parent's are trying to nurture.  It isn't nearly as simple as chosing one over the other.  Below I give the rules-of-thumb to use rewards effectively.

Conditioning, using rewards and punishment, is a very basic form of psychological behaviour modification that you can use to teach (or program if you will) worms, dogs, and humans. The prerequisite is a nervous system, and maybe not even that.  The good thing about that is that it works even with small babies!

When I wrote the punishment article, some people thought that I meant beatings or groundings. I simply meant anything that the child dislikes. Similarly, rewards are anything the child likes or wants more of. Candy, money, watching a movie, toys, a kind word, an exciting outing, are all examples of rewards.

When are rewards useful?

Rewards are great for modifying low-level, very basic behaviour such as to teach children how to say please and thank-you, to clean up after themselves, to efficiently get themselves ready for the day, to brush their teeth, to eat properly, etc. Rewards are also useful to teach complicated skills like reading, walking, talking, mathematics, drawing techniques, calculus, etc, but this is also where the use of rewards gets extremely dangerous -- you can easily kill motivation or cause the child to learn something unintended, but I'll cover that in another article. For now, let’s stick with Ps and Qs level of behaviour.

Your goal in using rewards and punishment is to create an almost instinctive belief and deep motivation that becomes the truth for the child. Imagine how you feel when you are hungry: A growing desire draws you towards food without any conscious thought. Imagine any minor or major additions you have like to video games, alcohol, cleanliness, exercise, facebook, gambling: Think about how the compulsion feels, how you are drawn to the behaviour.  It isn't even conscious, more like a programming, wiring, an instinct.  You can create this in your children too just as they were created within you by an accidental or a purposeful reward/punishment system.

Behaviour Modification with Rewards

People, including children, automatically avoid negative experiences and gravitate towards positive experiences. As a parent, you can use this to your advantage by associating a positive experience with a behaviour that you want to encourage. It's really as easy as hearing your child say “Thank you” and commenting, “Wow, what a wonderfully polite child I have!” In fact, the comment is golden because I recommend using physical rewards very sparingly.  Physical rewards are more of a hassle: You may not have them around when you need them, and they're expensive. An encouraging word is something you always have on you.

How the child's brain is rewired is very simple:  When the child gets the reward then their brain associates a little bit of happiness with what they just did to get the reward. Through the use of the rules I list below, the association can become very strong. They literally begin to feel good just by doing the action that causes the reward. Cleaning will feel good. Brushing teeth will feel good. Being polite will feel good.

Here are the rules to make using rewards have their strongest effect and require the least effort from the parents.

Use Only When Deserved

One key to rewards is to give them only when they are deserved. After the child knows how to behave they only get the reward when they behave correctly. A half-cleaned room is not clean. Wetting the toothbrush and shoving it into the mouth for a second earns no kudo. Whispering thank-you under the breath is as good as nothing. You want to instill the good feelings for the full and authentic behaviour, not just going through the motions.

Rewards and Punishment Go Hand in Hand

One difficulty that rewards-only parents experience is that behaviour reinforced with rewards is always optional. If the child is willing to fore-go the reward, then the behaviour won't get done. For example: If the child wants to go play with her friends then maybe cleaning her room to get a “Good girl” isn't worth it, so the room won't get cleaned. This is because clever girl compares how she'll feel getting a “Good girl” comment versus getting with her friends earlier and decides that the playing is the better reward.

How you fix this is that you pair rewards with punishment. Rewards teach the required behaviour and punishment destroys the wrong behaviour. This pairing makes it a simple choice for the child and is very powerful in getting behaviours changed very quickly. Remember that punishment is not a bad thing: I wrote a detailed post about how to effectively use punishments.

This combination causes the child to feel good about a clean room, but also badly about a messy room. Some of you parents have a huge unconscious drive to clean: How do you think that happened? Genetics? No, punishment and reward.

Use the Minimal Reward

Another difficulty is the over-application of rewards. Rewards lose their reward-nature as they are given too much. One candy is good, 100 candies fills a barf-bag. One kiss feels great, 100 kisses is a hickey and disgusting rash. Surprisingly, to maximize the effect, rewards should be taken away over time. When you are just starting to cement a behaviour you use rewards every time as instant feedback. After the child knows what to do, you gradually reduce the use of rewards until you are giving them randomly and infrequently. After awhile, when the child cleans her room, she will almost certainly not hear anything about it except perhaps once or twice a month mom will give her a great big hug and say “You know, I'm so lucky to have a great kid like you who cleans their room all the time – just wanted to let you know. Most kids don't do that!” This gradual reduction of rewards has a very powerful motivating force.  Don't reduce it to zero, however.  Just ... every so often.

Use Natural Rewards

Just like creating artificial punishments is a bad idea, creating artificial rewards is also a bad idea. Once mom and dad stop providing the rewards, the child must continue to get rewards from the behaviour itself. Outcomes need to be linked to the behaviours. Doing homework well gets good grades, resulting in recognition and pride which is awesome. The homework itself may be drudgery, but it will be accomplished in anticipation of rewards.

Some parents make the mistake of inadvertently rewarding the child for doing the homework early on, say by spending lots of time with them in the early grades, but then stopping in the belief that the behaviour has stuck.  Unfortunately once the rewards stop then, over time, the instinct to do the homework is eroded unless it clicks with the child that the homework itself provides rewards.  For a lifelong effect, transition the parental-provided rewards that were used early on to the intrinsic rewards generated by the behaviour itself.  Point out the connection between good grades and the homework.  Remind them how much easier they had it in class and how much more impressive they were when they knew the material versus when they didn't, and reward the good second-level outcomes like grades or science-fair wins or similar.

Using obviously artificial rewards like tying allowance to the completion of chores is a bit troublesome for the same reason. The money is the desired outcome for the child. As long as money is good then the motivation to do chores exists, but when money doesn’t become important any more -- like when they figure out that outside jobs pay more than allowance -- chores will not be done. Instead, tie the completion of chores to a sense of pride or family duty. Do this through your words and actions, or taking the child out occasionally to buy a special “I appreciate your awesome helpfulness around the house” present.

Withholding Is Punishment, Not Reward

Sometimes parents think they are rewarding their child by withhold things like time, activities, food, even love, until and unless children behave correctly.  This is not a reward, this is a punishment and likely a bad punishment strategy at that.  You wouldn't think it is good to keep a child into a dark box, then let them out to see the sun only when they behave a certain way, to lock them back a short time later.  Make the base situation something that is reasonable.  Children are fed, clothed, loved, have mental and physical stimulation, feel smart and valuable, have freedom, etc.  Rewards are extra on top of these.

To Close -- Start Right Away

Please remember, using rewards and punishments doesn't create a deep-thinking philosopher, it creates under-lying and subconscious change.  In a laboratory setting with a totally controlled environment you could "program" your kids into almost whatever you wanted.  They could become deathly afraid of butterflies or become compulsive dictionary readers using these techniques.  In the real world, opportunities are much more limited especially as the children grow up.  You will lose almost all punishment power and a good piece of your reward power by the time kids go to school because you simply can no longer control their environment.  Children also start to find their own ways to get rewards the older they get.  Therefore, if you really want them to develop some deeply ingrained behaviours then you must get it done as young as possible -- or homeschool them.

This is a level 1 technique that works on anyone, but is especially good for the very young right from pre-speaking babies.  It's also used on adults regularly.  In fact, there is a high priced consulting group that has branded a version of it called "ABC Training" for use by managers to improve the behaviour of their workers.  It works and I don't consider it unethical at all because this is exactly how we all develop our personalities and preferences.  We do what we do because it brings us to better places.  In short, we all chase rewards.


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Punishment to me means: using

Michelle's picture

Punishment to me means: using your power to 'try' to control a child by putting them in a uncomfortable position and make them suffer for their undesirable behavior or poor choices. My grad school adviser got more out of me when I wasn't suffering, I can tell you that.   I  do see what you're saying about falling victim to this over-positivity paradigm that seems very popular now..but that's as far as I agree with you on punishment.  People don't want to hit their kids anymore thank goodness, but along with that means we can't coerce or control their behavior anymore (I disagree with the stimulus/response model, sorry... since human animals can harbor distance and's not just about survival, it's about thriving, connection, and social/emotional well being).  What's the trade off then for not terrifying our kids into good behavior with corporal punishment...I think that's why parenting seems so difficult for parents nowadays.  We're comparing behavior of kids in the good-old-days to behavior now when the structure is completely different!

I do think taking a time out to calm down for my 5 year old is a good idea and not a punishment b/c even adults should be able to take a time out to collect their thoughts before they continue making bad choices.  A time out on a naughty chair is not cool with me, but a time out, away from distraction to cool off is in my toolbox..

I like this statement you made and try to live by it...

"If the child doesn’t know how to turn off the punishment, by changing something, then punishment will poison your relationship and the child’s well-being."

I think there's a huge margin of error in deciding what your child is capable of, for example ending tantrums. Some tantrums are manipulative, true,  others are a response to physical/mental stress in which case helping them to cope is more appropraite (kids are not little adults, they are completely different).  True, you can't give in to a kid who is throwing a tantrum to do something you said they were not allowed to do, but I don't think you have to impose a punishment on top of that...I think you just don't give in.

Your punishments sound like natural consequences and I get the point you made about having them fit the crime...but I think you need to expand on your 'attitude' toward your child as you are prescribing the it loving guidance?, "Here, let's try to fix this lamp, it's the best we can do to remedy what just happened"  or is it "You broke the lamp, you're going to fix it" ? 

Currently I'm working on deciding if disapproval (angry attitudes during a misbehavior) toward my children is a mild form of conditional love from me...I think it is a little.  Although, it is what most parents instinctively do (or want to do) in a stressful situation with their kids, so maybe we ARE suppose to handle it that way..maybe it does serve a beneficial purpose...anyway, it's what I'm working on these days. I realize it's my job to teach them to be successful out there in the (sometimes harsh, unforgiving) world, but I want a deeper bond with my kids than I had with my parents, and I want them to migrate toward optimistic people and situations and learn to not tolerate toxic people and situations.  Parents are not like all the other people out there in the world..we're special.

I think parents want their kids to instantly learn by their mistakes and have good manners..but those things take time.  I think punishments can speed up the process for sure, but not at the price I want to pay (insert external vs internal motivational argument here or other relevant supporting information ;)

So now, I'm still thinking over your very strong feelings about honesty and lying...I feel instilling your passion to the point of saying a person who tells an untruth is useless is a very dangerous path to take with your children...but I'm still thinking it over, it's quite interesting to me.

Again...I will add the disclaimer that everything I just whole parenting philosophy is "easier said than done" :)

I think you might enjoy this...and our differences might lie in the statement made at 2:00 minutes

I saw your comment on PhD in

Maman A Droit's picture

I saw your comment on PhD in Parenting (on "chaos" at the dinner table) and wanted to check out your blog. I'm happy I did, because we seem quite like-minded based on the posts I've looked at so far (like this one and the one about your rotten neighbor kid). I'm definitely bookmarking your blog and will be back to read & comment as often as I have time to!