It is not true that people do things only because they will be rewarded for doing them. Children are not trained pigeons or laboratory rats, who will do whatever will get them a treat. Kids like treats, of course, but there is something they like even better. Independence.
So trying to get children to behave by “catching them being good” and rewarding or praising them for it will only get you so far. You might get a smile. You might even get a repeat of the good behavior. But over the long haul you’ve taught your child something different from what you think you’ve taught. You’ve taught your child that your approval can be bought and that she’s the one in charge.
This isn’t what you expected. This isn’t what happens with lab rats. Rats don’t suddenly ask the researcher, “What will you give me if I do what you want?” They don’t ever say, “No, thanks. That’s not enough for me.” But children do. Once you’ve put a price on good behavior, you’ve put the choice to accept that price or reject it in your children’s hands. Children weigh the value of your approval against the value of their own independence and self-esteem. Sooner or later, your approval is worth less.
No one – not even a child – wants to be manipulated. So when rewards and promises are used to coerce good behavior, children understand perfectly what’s going on. As far as a child is concerned, no reward is better than being an independent, free person. A child might accept your offer of a reward today – as a free, independent person, that’s his prerogative – but he might reject your offer tomorrow. Children are their own selves, not our puppets. They know this and are ready to teach parents a lesson.
So this means that the plan you might have had, to not punish your children but to reward them when they do as you wish, has a huge flaw in it. Rewards just don’t work all that well over the long term. Kids can be bought, yes. You can get a child to clean up her room by promising to take her to the movies if there’s a movie she wants to see. But expect her to demand the same “payment” for cleaning her room next time, or for her to tell you she’s just not that interested in cleaning her room since there’s no good movies around. Rewards don’t develop a child’s sense of responsibility or obedience, only a sense of power.
Now it is your child who is doling out rewards – her cleaned room – and you whose behavior is being manipulated – ponying up for a trip to the cinema. Was this what you had in mind?
What can you do instead?
The problem with rewards lies in the trickery rewards imply. We are tricking our children into doing as we wish by holding out a reward for doing it. Remove the trickery and make things more straightforward. Say, “This room is a mess! It’s time to clean it. How quickly do you think you can get things into better shape?” Let the child decide on a time target. Set a timer. Announce, “Go!” If it’s a small child or if the room is really awful, pitch in to help. Get it done in the time allowed. Then celebrate with a cookie or a high-five or a trip to the movies. Whatever. Just avoid holding out the celebratory reward ahead of time.
Or, forego the reward altogether and simply comment on what you see. Instead of saying, “Thanks for taking care of your baby sister. Here’s three dollars,” just say, “Thanks for taking care of your baby sister. She looks like she had a great time with you.” If you never start down the payment-for-responsible-behavior road, your child will feel more responsible, not less, when you share your sincere appreciation. There’s no need to taint the moment with money or another reward.
It’s not that you can never say, “Wow, that was a terrific thing you did. Let’s celebrate!” You certainly can. But it does mean that you can’t develop the kind of responsibility you’re looking for if you instead say, “If you do a terrific thing, then we’ll celebrate.” The problem is not with the celebration but with the cause-and-effect condition put on it. A celebration is something you do with another person. A reward is something you do to another person.
No one wants to be done-to.
© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Look for free downloads on Dr. Anderson’s website at www.patricianananderson.com.