As a parent, if you're having a difficult time answering this question, you aren't alone. There are mixed messages with some parenting experts, and friends and family, being proponents of rewarding children and others being very much opposed. But actually it turns out that it's not so simple. In this article we explore the topic and offer strategies for handling this parenting dilemma.
Pros & Cons of Rewarding Kids
Parents consider rewarding children for different reasons but a common and compelling one is to increase their motivation to achieve a goal. This could be anything from potty training, to cleaning their room, to getting good grades, to being nice to a younger sibling, to making a sports team.
Pros: On the one hand, rewarding kids for meeting certain goals is often effective. It can help them know what to do and feel acknowledged and compensated for their hard work. Parents see rewards as a way to get kids going in the right direction on the path to establishing good habits. And getting rewards releases chemicals in the brain that make a person feel good, so parents see their kids are happy. This makes the parent feel good, too.
Parents see rewards as a way to get kids going in the right direction on the path to establishing good habits.
Cons: Those who don't believe in giving rewards usually feel that rewarding kids for achievements they "should do anyway" undermines personal responsibility. That it opens up having to negotiate constantly with kids. That it makes kids feel entitled and materialistic. There’s also the issue of rewarding kids for things they’re already motivated to do. This can undermine the intrinsic value of the activity for the child—who may no longer want to do that activity without a reward.
Which is It? It can be both! Which side plays out depends on a number of factors. These include the type of reward, the frequency of the reward, and the underlying reason for giving a reward. Let's look a little deeper at the nature of rewards next.
A Reward by Any Other Name -Is it Just as Sweet?
A reward can be 'tangible' or 'intangible'. If it’s tangible, it's usually something concrete and often physical. Receiving candy, toys, money, stickers on a chart, getting to watch TV are all examples of tangible rewards. Intangible rewards are those like verbal praise or non-verbal likes hugs, high fives, a thumbs-up; and being socially-oriented they’re great for the parent-child relationship as well.
It’s useful to consider the behavior that has to be exhibited to get a reward. This can be completion-dependent, where all a child has to do is complete a task but the quality matters little. Or it can be quality-dependent, where a child has to complete a task to a meaningful standard. Here's an example. A completion-dependent task is reading 5 books. A quality-dependent task is reading 5 books that are challenging. Another example of a completion-dependent task could be brushing one's teeth which could be just a few seconds, while a quality-dependent task is flossing and then brushing for 2 minutes. Keep in mind the standard should be age-appropriate and the outcome doesn’t have to be 'perfect'. That just puts a lot of pressure on kids and can spark resistance and anxiety.
Now let’s put this into tips and strategies for you…
5 General Tips When Rewarding Your Kids
- If your child is already interested and excited, in a word motivated, to work toward a goal, consider not giving external, tangible rewards. There really is no need for it. If a child is not interested or vested in an activity or a goal, then you can consider rewards to increase motivation.
- We often think about giving a reward only at the end but smaller rewards along the way send the valuable message that effort and progress matter.
- If you reward, keep the tangible rewards as low as possible to get the result needed, and try to rely more on intangible rewards.
- To make the reward meaningful, let children have a say in their rewards but within reason. Giving an expensive or over-the-top reward is something you will want to avoid.
- Recognize that what is rewarding, or motivating, is a matter of personal preference.
To make the reward meaningful, let children have a say in their rewards but within reason. Giving an expensive or over-the-top reward is something you will want to avoid.
Meaningful Rewards by Age Group
How children respond to rewards and the best practices for parents changes depending on the developmental stage. In this section, we lay out how this operates.
Early Childhood (Ages 4 to 7)
- Younger kids are less able to stay motivated for long-term goals due to a still developing understanding of time and under-developed delay of gratification. So they need more immediate rewards and more of them. This is another good reason to keep the rewards small.
- They do need more tangible rewards. A goal chart with stickers or stars is very popular with this younger set. Because they still interact with the world in a very physical way, food can be a reward but be cautious by using sparingly so kids don’t end up associating emotions with food.
- They also may need some choices given. Here are some examples, When you finish brushing your teeth, would you like to read books or sing songs with me?, Once your toys are put away, would you like to play tag or Frisbee?, When you finish your dinner, for dessert what kind of fruit would you like in your yogurt? The added bonus is this supports their strong need for autonomy and independence in a constructive way.
Middle Childhood (Ages 8 to 11)
- One thing you can use to your advantage is that children in middle childhood are in the period of industriousness. They like to accomplish tasks for feelings of competency. This means they respond very well to praise and acknowledgement as a reward.
- But they are still very concrete thinkers and tangible rewards matter, too. At this age, they can delay gratification and work toward longer goals to some extent. Rather than many, small rewards, switching to less frequent and slightly more sophisticated rewards is warranted.
- Kids this age are now more skilled in coming up with their own rewards but they still might be unrealistic. Being patient and working with them will help them develop the ability to design rewards you both feel good about. Examples of appropriate rewards could be getting to spend time using technology, an outing in the community, a sleepover, or a reasonable purchase of a toy, book, or clothing.
Adolescence (12 & Up)
- As your kids reach and enter the teen years, their ability to work toward long-term goals increases, but they still benefit from reaching milestones and receiving rewards. At this point, they’re also more able to realize achieving the goal is its own reward. This means you can move away from frequent tangible rewards.
- That said, the achieved goal for this age group can be fairly substantial and knowing they can receive something tangible can definitely help keep them motivated. Because their tastes are now likely to be more expensive, negotiating ahead about what is realistic but meaningful is an important step.
- Adolescence is a time of focusing on identity so encouraging their drive to explore and try on many hats can be a way to reward that doesn’t end up with them having more material goods-which for most kids by this time is quite substantial. Getting a chance to practice driving, to go to a concert, take a class in an interest, or go on a trip are appealing to adolescents for rewards.
As you can see, giving some thought to why and how you reward your children is important. By doing so you have a better chance of getting the positives we discussed under Pros and avoiding those negatives we laid out in the Cons!
Resources for Specific Reward Ideas
- Eisenberger, R., & Cameron, J. (1996). Detrimental effects of reward: Reality or myth? American Psychologist, 51(11), 1153-1166.
- Richins, M. L., & Chaplin, L. N. (2015). Material parenting: How the use of goods in parenting fosters materialism in the next generation. Journal of Consumer Research, 41(6), 1333-1357.
- Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), 54-67.
About The Author
Lilla Dale McManis, MEd., PhD., is President & Founder of Parent in the Know and uses her training and experience to help parents and educators promote optimal child outcomes through translating research into meaningful practice.