Q:I started giving my 2-year-old a cookie once in a while when he would help me put away his toys. But I’ve created the Cookie Monster! Now he expects a treat every time. Should I always give him a reward for good behavior?
A: Most of us have grappled with this issue of rewards when struggling to get our children to cooperate. The concern about material rewards is that they motivate children to make good choices in order to receive a prize, rather than for the pleasure of "doing the right thing" and feeling cooperative and helpful. Another concern is that children begin to expect a reward for even the smallest task. (You say, Time to brush teeth. He says, What will you give me?) And, when they don’t receive a reward, they wonder what they have done wrong.
It is important that children experience a positive outcome for good behavior. But the key is that it is logically connected to the behavior, and that it happens as close as possible to the event; for example, getting 5 more minutes of playtime right after he cooperates with dressing to go to child care because he saved you time chasing him around to get his clothes on. Giving a child a cookie for helping to clean up his toys is not very useful in the long run because there is no connection between chocolate chips and neat shelves. On the other hand, reading an extra book before bed because he cooperated with tooth-brushing and getting pajamas on can be a powerful incentive. It helps to reinforce to your child that good things happen when you cooperate, take on responsibility, and make good choices. Just be sure that your expectations are in line with your child’s developmental age and stage.
Of course, the best reward is to boost your son’s self-esteem by telling him how proud you are when he has made a good choice and pointing out how his actions were helpful and important. You put all the clothes back in your drawer. You are doing such a wonderful job keeping your room clean and helping Mommy, too! Thanks.