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A few months ago, my husband and I met a psychologist who advised us to start using rewards with our 6-year-old. Our son is happy, but he struggles at times with his behavior and emotions. (What kid doesn’t?) We wanted to help him become more self-sufficient, more proactive—to get dressed in the morning without prompting, to clear his plate after breakfast, to say please and thank you, to put his dirty clothes in the hamper. We also hoped to curb his frequent meltdowns. A positive parenting approach that reinforces good behavior could make this happen, the psychologist told us.
The internet, which of course I consulted immediately, staunchly disagreed. In parents’ exhausting journey to raise good kids, I learned, they should never, ever use rewards. A 2016 article in the Atlantic, “Against the Sticker Chart,” warned me that rewarding kids for good behavior “can erode children’s innate tendency to help others.” Money ran a story in 2015 titled “The Hidden Downside to Rewarding Your Kids for Good Behavior.” Education guru Alfie Kohn has written an entire book on the subject, Punished by Rewards. The concern, which can be traced back to research from the 1970s, is that rewarding kids for being polite, doing chores, or finishing their homework extinguishes their innate desire to do those things down the line. Worse, I was told, rewards could make kids callous and manipulative. I imagined my son leering at me: “How much will you pay me not to whack my sister with this flip-flop?”
But is the research really this damning? When an extreme stance is presented on a rather broad topic, I start wondering. And what I’ve found after digging into the research is that these blanket condemnations are unwarranted. Rewards can be useful in some situations and inappropriate in others, much like every other parenting tool. The literature on the potential dangers of rewards has been misinterpreted while the findings on its benefits have been largely overlooked.
Let’s start with one of the earliest and most famous studies on rewards, published in 1971 by Edward Deci, a psychologist at the University of Rochester. Deci invited 24 subjects, all undergraduate students, to participate one by one in a three-day experiment. On the first day, he introduced them to the cube-based puzzle game Soma, in which players arrange pieces into various shapes. Deci provided them with drawings of configurations and asked his subjects to reproduce them. If they couldn’t finish one within 13 minutes, Deci would show them how to do it. The second day of the experiment was much like the first, but for one important detail: Deci offered half the participants $1 for each configuration they could make within the 13-minute time limit while the other half kept doing puzzles without rewards. And on the third day, the subjects built puzzles again, but no one was offered money. Each day, Deci left the room for eight minutes, telling subjects that they could “do whatever you like while I am gone,” including read magazines that he had left for them. Then Deci would watch behind two-way glass to see how much time they spent on the puzzles.
As you probably guessed, on the second day, the subjects who had been offered money devoted more of their “free” time to doing puzzles. Deci noticed, though, that these subjects then spent less time on the puzzles on the third day, when the rewards had been rescinded, compared with the time they spent on them on the first day and the time the never-rewarded group spent on them that third day. As Deci concluded, there seemed to be a “decrease in intrinsic motivation for the activity following the experience with monetary rewards.”
There are two important things to keep in mind about this study. First, the purported drop in intrinsic motivation on the third day was not statistically significant, which means that we can’t be sure the difference wasn’t due to chance. Second, Deci centered his study around Soma precisely because, as he explained, “it seemed that most college students would be intrinsically motivated to do it.” In other words, he was evaluating the effects that rewards have on a person’s interest in an activity they initially found enjoyable. Yet “who on earth would think about using rewards if a child was interested in an activity?” asked Virginia Shiller, an assistant clinical professor at the Yale University Child Study Center and author of Rewards for Kids!, when I interviewed her for this article. “You only think of offering incentives if a child is struggling and resisting.” In other words, Deci’s findings aren’t applicable to the situations in which parents offer rewards.
Deci and others went on to publish dozens of studies on how rewards affect intrinsic motivation, and many were designed the same way. Indeed, in a meta-analysis published nearly 30 years after he conducted his first study, Deci and his colleagues analyzed 128 studies on the topic, concluding that rewards decrease intrinsic motivation; every single one of the included studies focused on enjoyable tasks. In another famous paper, published in 1973, a team of researchers that included Stanford psychologist Mark Lepper observed a group of preschool kids after giving them magic markers, which they didn’t normally get to use. Then they specifically chose the kids who spent the most time drawing—those who clearly enjoyed drawing the most—to participate in their experiment on how rewards influence intrinsic interest. (Keep reading to see what Lepper really thinks about rewards.) This is all interesting research, for sure, but it doesn’t tell us anything about how effective rewards are for getting kids to, say, write thank-you notes to grandma or take out the trash.
Other researchers, though, have looked at the issue in a more parent-relevant way. In a 2001 paper, psychologist Judy Cameron at the University of Alberta broke down the effects of rewards on motivation for different types of tasks, concluding that rewards reliably boost the amount of time people spend on unappealing tasks. In an earlier meta-analysis of 96 reward studies, she and a colleague concluded that “rewarded people are not less willing to work on activities and they do not display a less favorable attitude toward tasks than people who do not receive rewards.”
But we don’t want our kids to clean up their toys only when we offer them popsicles—we want them to grow into people who like to keep their rooms clean. In other words, we want to shape behavior permanently. Won’t rewards undermine that? Some research does raise concerns: A 2016 study, for instance, found that 3-year-olds who were given rewards for sharing on one occasion were less likely in the future to share when rewards weren’t offered. But studies like this, which measure the effects of a single reward, don’t reflect how rewards are typically used. No parent expects that rewarding her kid for sharing once will change her outlook on sharing for life. But reward her for a few weeks so that the behavior becomes routine—and so that she gets to experience the good feelings that accompany acting generously—and her choices might start shifting.
Indeed, one key reason rewards work is that they facilitate what psychologist Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center and author of The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child, calls “repeated practice.” The more your child does the good things you reward him for—tidying up, using a fork, stifling a tantrum—the more routine that behavior becomes. And, eventually, it just becomes part of who he is. Parents often assume that knowledge and awareness are enough to change behavior—that saying, “No, sweetie, hitting isn’t nice!” will get your kid to stop—but that’s not how humans work. We all know we should exercise daily and eat five servings of fruits and vegetables, too, but few of us do. It’s usually people who have forced themselves into the habit of exercising and eating leafy greens who regularly do it. I’ve seen how this repeated practice works with my 6-year-old, because yes, we did try that recommended rewards system. An example: My husband and I started rewarding him every time he put his dirty clothes in the hamper. At first we had to remind him daily that doing it would earn him a reward; then he started doing it and asking for his reward. But after a month or so, we stopped reminding, he stopped asking for rewards, and we stopped finding dirty clothes on the floor. (As for what rewards we use, more on that later.)
Indeed, the popular claim that Once you start using rewards, you can’t stop doesn’t reflect what happens in practice. Clinical psychologist David Anderson, senior director of the ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute in Manhattan, told me that rewards given to improve a specific behavior are needed for only a few weeks or months, and then you move on to your next goal. “As those behaviors become more habitual, you’re either giving rewards less frequently, or you’re switching to a new focus of behavior,” he explained. Or maybe you put away the rewards chart for good. After my son mastered putting his clothes in the hamper, I turned my reward-giving to hair brushing, which he now does every morning without reminders, too.
And despite what you might read, plenty of evidence shows that when parents learn how to use positive feedback and rewards, their kids’ behavior improves. Programs that teach parents these approaches have been successfully used for decades to help noncompliant kids as well as those with diagnosed ADHD or conduct disorder; research suggests that they not only improve kids’ behavior in the short term but that the benefits persist. Psychologists believe that over time, as good behaviors become more common, they crowd out and ultimately replace negative behaviors. So even though our reward system didn’t directly address our son’s frequent meltdowns, we found that they nevertheless have started dissipating. And while critics argue that reward systems weaken and undermine parent-child relationships, they have been shown instead to strengthen them, because interactions between parents and kids become much more positive.
What about the ethics of it all, though? Some parents worry that giving rewards means they’re “bribing” their kids. But Anderson points out that rewards are built into all of our lives—we just don’t bring attention to them or think about them as such. You might work hard so you can leave work early (that’s a reward) or ask for a raise (another reward). You went to the gym every day last week, so you’ll buy yourself a cookie (reward). You’ll fix the front door so it stops squeaking (reward) or so that your spouse will thank you (reward). Even showing up at work every day is contingent upon reimbursement. Rewards are part of everyday life.
Your kids’ lives are chock full of rewards, too, but again, you may not think of them that way. They already get to watch movies, have play dates, go out for ice cream. So when you start using a reward system, “it’s not that you have to add rewards, it’s just that you reclaim what’s already rewarding,” Anderson says. Choose rewards you feel comfortable with; options can include extra family time and playground trips, if that feels better than money or candy. (Rewarding with favorite foods can actually be a bad idea, because it reinforces that there’s a hierarchy to the food pyramid—that sugary treats are more valuable and delicious than other foods. It can also make kids even more obsessed with whatever reward food you’re using.) But it is crucial that you choose rewards your kid truly values, because otherwise, they won’t motivate him. We didn’t get anywhere when we offered our 3-year-old daughter stickers to stay in her bed after night-night, but that was because she didn’t care about stickers. When we started using stamps, things changed. (And by the way, reward systems aren’t just for little kids; they can be adapted to work with older kids and teens, too.)
Our reward system, which we learned about from Weill Cornell Medicine psychologist Matthew Specht, is based on points: Each point our son earns is worth one cent as well as one minute of screen time. We keep tabs with a daily spreadsheet, which also shows him his tasks and activities for the day, providing him with the structure and predictability he craves. And we still control when he gets to use his screen time points, so he’s not actually watching any more than he used to. Perhaps the best part of the system is “bonus points,” when we spontaneously award points for something we notice him doing that we like—when he’s especially patient with his little sister or doesn’t freak out after losing a game of Uno. These bonus points have taught my husband and me to notice and point out when our son is being good, which isn’t always automatic for parents. When our kids color quietly, we sneak off to read the newspaper and don’t draw attention to their behavior. But we should praise them for giving us that break, too.
The popularity of “tough love” parenting—itself a reaction to helicopter parenting—is driving parents to reject rewards, but this thinking is flawed, too. Parents worry that if they reward their kids for things they should be doing anyway, they’ll spoil them or turn them into snowflakes. But as I’ve written before, there’s nothing wrong with being a supportive and positive parent. If you’re not using positive approaches, you need to consider what kinds of tools you’ll use to shape behavior. Will you yell at her more? Punish her? Too much negative feedback and discipline can be ineffective and harmful, and can incite behavioral problems. (And as Specht pointed out to us, continually nagging your kid until she cleans her room—which is essentially creating an aversive environment for her until she relents—is the same tactic your child uses when she whines nonstop until you give her juice. Don’t let her learn it from you!) It’s not that you have to use rewards to be a good parent—you absolutely don’t—but if your alternatives are nagging or punishment, you might want to rejigger your toolbox.
So when, then, are rewards helpful? Yale’s Virginia Shiller says if your child is struggling to do something she really needs to do, either because she doesn’t like it or doesn’t yet have the skills needed to enjoy it, that’s a good reward opportunity. Even Lepper, the Stanford psychologist who published the 1973 study and then went on to build an entire theory around the negative effects of rewards, noted in a recent Stanford profile that rewards do have a time and place. They can, for instance, help kids get interested in difficult tasks, such as reading or writing. “Lots of tasks at first can be awful and dull and boring until you acquire enough competence to do them well, like the early stages of reading,” the profile explains. Shiller agrees: Rewards can provide “a bridge to give them a reason to try it—and hopefully, they’ll eventually feel competent and successful, and that [feeling] will take the place of the rewards.”
Importantly, build your rewards system so that your child earns rewards easily, at least at first, Shiller says. With young children especially, she said, “you want to be their cheerleader, you want to praise and encourage them, and you want them to succeed.” Move the goalposts if you have to. If you start by telling your kid he’ll get a reward each time he writes his name, and then you see he’s really struggling, revise your plan so that he gets a reward each time he writes a single letter. But then, once he enjoys writing, ease off the reward giving—because at that point, as that vast body of research suggests, rewards may stunt his intrinsic interest.
Again: I’m not arguing that parents need to use rewards. There are many ways to shape your children’s behavior. But the scaremongering claims that rewards will harm your kid or extinguish her zeal for life simply aren’t backed by good evidence. If you’ve considered positive reinforcement but have been scared off by the dire warnings, reconsider. You might, like me, find reward programs rewarding. My son is blossoming into a generous, resilient, and responsible child, and I have a lot fewer clothes to clean up.