Q: Should parents give children rewards for doing things that might be expected of them anyway? Are rewards for good behavior ever appropriate?
A: The concern about material rewards is that they motivate children to make good choices in order to receive a prize, rather than encouraging them to “do the right thing.” Another concern is that a child begins to expect a reward for even the smallest task. And when they don’t receive it, their motivation for making good choices is removed. They may either get angry or wonder what they have done wrong. When children are internally motivated to make good choices, they do so because it gives them satisfaction, makes them feel good about themselves, and boosts their self esteem.
Our job as parents is to socialize our children to be successful in the world—both academically, and by forming healthy relationships with others. In the real world, people often don’t get material rewards for making good choices. You don’t get candy in kindergarten for helping another child; you don’t get a dollar for learning to read. But these experiences make a child feel such internal satisfaction that no other reward is necessary. Helping your child tap into his or her sense of internal motivation is an important skill, since it is something a child carries with him throughout his life.
It is important that children be rewarded for good behavior. But the key is that the reward be logically connected to the behavior. For example, giving a child a cookie for helping to clean up his toys is not very useful. But if with his help, his toys were put away faster, the reward is that there is time to read another book with you before bed. Another example is getting to pick out big boy underwear for learning to use the potty, a more meaningful result than going on a trip to the ice-cream store. These kinds of rewards teach your child that good things happen when you cooperate, take on responsibility, and make good choices.
This question first appeared in American Baby Magazine.