Are We Crushing Our Kids With Rewards?

How Can We Raise Independent, Free-Thinking Kids

The other day I read an article on Babycenter that really got to the heart of two issues I find myself struggling with pretty often as a parent. You can read the article yourself here: How to avoid making meals a power struggle.

The article is talking specifically about how to handle mealtime, but to me it’s really about how to raise an independent, free-thinking child no matter the context.

There are two big points that really struck me:

  1. By rewarding a desired behavior (e.g. eating vegetables) with a treat (e.g. dessert), what you’re really doing is teaching your child that the desired behavior is a punishment.
  2. Letting your child make her own decisions encourages better long-term habits.

These are both things that have been in my mind constantly ever since our first son Aiden was born. On the one hand, I want to be a role model and help guide my kids in the right direction. On the other hand, I want to help them think independently and make their own decisions.

Sometimes those two goals feel like their clashing, and it’s the two points highlighted above that really seem to be the focus of my struggle.

Can rewards be bad?

I would guess that pretty much everyone was told at some point that they would only get dessert if they finished their broccoli. Or that they could go play once they’d finished their homework. Or that they’d get a bonus if they could make enough sales.

Rewards for good behavior are rampant in our society. But are they actually useful in promoting positive long-term behavior?

The Babycenter article suggests that a reward can actually make the desired behavior feel like a punishment. I also found this article that delves into the research behind motivating children in the classroom and thought this passage was particularly interesting:

The implications of this analysis and these data are troubling. If the question is “Do rewards motivate students?”, the answer is, “Absolutely: they motivate students to get rewards.” Unfortunately, that sort of motivation often comes at the expense of interest in, and excellence at, whatever they are doing.

Now THAT’S a pretty powerful conclusion! And I’ll be honest, it ends up just confusing the heck out of me even more.

I mean, I get the premise and I actually really identify with it. I would like to take it to heart as much as possible and foster an independent curiosity and excitement in my kids that’s apart from any external reward.

It’s just that when I get into real-life situations, it’s sometimes hard for me to figure out exactly how to do that.

How can we motivate behavior without rewards?

Our typical daily schedule has us spending from about 5-6pm playing with toys in the living room while dinner is cooking. Then when dinner’s ready, it’s of course time to clean up the toys.

Enter the confusion. How do I help build the habit of cleaning up without using rewards?

Some nights it works great. I’ll just say “okay, time to clean up!” and Aiden gets busy putting his toys away. If that doesn’t immediately work, I usually start to name the things I’m cleaning up and ask him which thing he’s going to clean up. Sometimes making it concrete like that helps.

But there are some nights where those things just aren’t going to work. For whatever reason he has no interest in cleaning up. And it’s in those situations where I’m not sure what to do:

  • Keep asking him to do it until he does it? That’s not the same as offering a reward, but it seems like it has a similar effect of motivating him to do it for external reasons.
  • Offer dinner as the reward for cleaning up? External motivation again.
  • Just let it go and do all the clean up myself? Am I teaching him that it’s okay to leave that work for others?
  • And what if he actually does clean up right away? Do I give him a hug and say thank you, or is that simple act too much of a reward?

It honestly confuses me. And of course, in the moment I end up placing more significance on each individual occurrence than really exists. Internally I’ll start getting frustrated if tonight isn’t a good clean up night. But what were the last few nights like? Is it a long-term trend or a one-time hiccup?

That kind of perspective isn’t always easy to have in the moment, which only adds to the confusion.

Giving up control

Here’s the part I think I really struggle with the most: giving up the tool of offering rewards means I have to give up a little bit of control. It means I have to accept that I can’t always dictate how my children will behave.

It’s such an obvious statement on the surface, but it can be hard to actually accept. After all, there’s a large amount of parenting where we are trying to mold their behavior. Learning how to talk, walk, read, write and kick a soccer ball are all important for their development, and they’re not going to learn it unless there’s someone showing them how to do it.

So we can lead by example. We can ask for help with certain chores and explain why they’re important. We can talk about “right” and “wrong”. All of these are ways to help guide our kids in the right direction and help them understand what their choices are.

But in the end, if we want our kids to be independent, free-thinking individuals, we simply have to give up that very last piece of the process: the actual decision. That part HAS to be theirs. Maybe not every single time. But most of the time.

Otherwise, how can they learn to trust themselves?

The dinner table: a classic power struggle

The Babycenter article focused on meal times, and honestly that’s probably the perfect setting to see this struggle play out. When it starts looking like our son Aiden isn’t going to eat much at a given meal, I start getting those little voices in my head:

  • “If he doesn’t eat, he won’t get all the nutrients he needs.”
  • “If he doesn’t get the nutrients he needs, maybe he won’t be as healthy as he should be.”
  • “If he isn’t healthy, that means I’m a bad parent! EAT AIDEN EAT!!!!”

So I encourage him to eat more of something. Or I offer him something else that maybe he’ll want. Whatever it is to try and push the behavior I want onto him.

But these are short-term reactions to what should really be a long-term plan. Does it really matter if he doesn’t eat much at this one meal? Of course not. He’ll be fine. Now if it kept happening meal after meal, that might be another story. But that’s rarely the case.

What I’m really doing when I try to force him to eat is teaching him not to trust his own instincts. He says he’s done, and I’m saying “no you’re not”. What kind of lesson is that? How can he learn how to think for himself if I’m constantly telling him that his thoughts are wrong?

So the real question is this: do I want my kids to learn that meals are the time of day where they have to eat until I tell him that they can stop?

Or do I want meals to be an opportunity for them to explore and learn more about themselves? To figure out what they like and don’t like? To learn for themselves that eating too much has consequences, as does not eating enough?

If it’s the latter, then I have to give up control and I have to do away with the rewards. I have to just let them be themselves.

This is a real struggle

Like I said, this is a constant struggle for me. It’s hard for me to find the line between positive encouragement and destructive reward. Or to know what’s a behavior I need to enforce and what’s one I should be okay letting go.

So what I’d really like to do is open it up to you guys. What do you think is the difference between a good reward and a bad one? How do you know when to let something go and when to harp on it? There are a lot of great parents reading this blog and I’d love to be able to learn from you.

Because to be honest, I’m still trying to figure it out.

Photo courtesy of Riq Bang

Start building a better financial future with the resource I wish I had when I was starting my family. It’s free!

8 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Holly@ClubThrifty May 27, 2014

    This sounds like my life story!

    I don’t reward with food because I don’t want my kids to reward themselves with food when they grow up. I want them to eat to live.

    I feel fortunate that my kids will usually eat vegetables. Sometimes they won’t though, and they go to bed hungry. Eat it or starve!

    • Matt Becker May 27, 2014

      I love your stance on food. I think it’s a really healthy one, though not always easy to live by in the moment. We’ve been trying more and more to just present our oldest with options and let him eat what he wants to eat. He doesn’t have to clean his plate, but he also doesn’t get to ask for something different than what he’s given. This lets us have some control over his diet without forcing him to eat certain things when he doesn’t want to.

  • Done by Forty May 28, 2014

    Really great stuff here, Matt. I don’t have children yet (at least none that I know of…thanks for indulging a Kingpin reference), but I agree that rewards seem to be a double edged sword. I remember reading somewhere (“Drive”?) that rewards were crap motivators long term, especially when it came to tasks that involved decision making or creativity. They only seem to work for rote tasks.

    • Matt Becker May 28, 2014

      Haha, never seen Kingpin, but that reminds me of my brother-in-law. Hey-o! I think rewards work really well if it’s the task that’s most important. But if it’s the person that’s most important, then there are probably other motivators that work much better.

  • Chip May 28, 2014

    Great article Matt!

    Have you ever read Dan Pink’s book DRIVE?

    I am in the middle of it now, but i feel it will help you better understand what drive us as humans.

    He calls the “Carrot and the Stick” Motivation 2.0. (Reward or punishment)

    He says today, we have moved on to Motivation 3.0 (freedom to do the right thing)

    He references children a lot. Kids are naturally curious and lack fear. Parents must act to protect them when they are really young, but he explains in a very creative way how human naturally desire to be autonomous and free.

    I hope that helps!

    Keep up the good work!

    • Matt Becker May 28, 2014

      I haven’t read it, but I’ve heard his name mentioned a lot in pretty different settings now so I’ll definitely have to put it on my list. Is there any big takeaway that you could explain quickly here for helping motivate kids the right way? No worries if not, but it would certainly be interesting. Thanks for sharing!

  • This is such a tough one, Matt. Like you, I want to raise independent, free-thinking kids and it’s not always easy to know if we’re doing it right. Rewards can truly be a double-edged sword, These days they seem so commonplace that kids just automatically expect to be rewarded, which doesn’t happen in real life. I do my best to lead by example because I do know the girls are watching me and I can’t expect them to listen to me if I don’t do the things that I ask the girls to do too. We don’t reward for things that we expect the girls to do – pick up after themselves, do their best in school, play nice with others, etc. We try to make our rewards unexpected and hopefully then truly a treat and a real reward.

    • Matt Becker May 28, 2014

      So I definitely agree with you in principle, but let me ask you this: does a “thank you” or other positive emotional response count as a reward. Like, if Aiden picks up all his toys and I give him a big hug and thank him for being responsible, is that a long-term de-motivator? That in particular is the kind of thing that confuses me. I want to be loving and show appreciation for that kind of thing, but I don’t want to be sending the wrong messages either.

Leave a Comment