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Why is the reward chart failing?

Published: 19 Oct 2015
Why is the reward chart failing?

Hi Dr Justin,

I have a 6 year old little girl. You know what they say… 6 going on 16! Reward charts have helped curb the attitude problem most of the time, however I am aware that she is becoming a rewards based learner…cons to every approach! Now when I ask her to do something, she wants to know what is in it for her. How can I get my daughter to do as I ask without having to keep bribing her?

Thanks in advance,

Bec

Dr Justin responds:

Reward charts create more problems than they solve, whether in the home, the classroom, or the workplace. Here are 11 scientifically supported reasons why I strongly discourage parents from using rewards-based approaches, and a few suggestions for what you can do instead. 

Rewards undermine intrinsic motivation

Evidence shows that when we bribe someone for doing something, they think it must be really boring (or horrible). Otherwise, why would we have to bribe them to do it? Furthermore, their focus is not on the task at hand. Their focus is on the reward. They are motivated – but their motivation is to get rewards rather than to do as we’ve asked.

Rewards diminish performance

When a reward is on offer, people (adults and children) go for the quickest strategy to get the reward. Ask them to clean their room for a reward and don’t be surprised to find all the clothes hidden in the back of the cupboard or under the bed. The room may be clean, but not in the way you had hoped.

Rewards are short-term

Research demonstrates that when we bribe people to do things, they only do them while the reward is on offer. Once the reward is gone, so is the motivation to do as they’ve been asked.

Rewards override autonomy

Because rewards are controlling, they remove choice for children. They feel coerced into behaving in certain ways, and this control can lead to outcomes that are not ideal. Sometimes they may become sneaky. Other times they may resist and become defiant. They may be compliant while we are around, but once we are gone (and with us, the reward), they choose actions alternative to those we prefer they choose.

Rewards must grow

A promised reward may be enticing the first time or two. Soon, however, the enticement passes, and our children (or employees) want a bigger, better reward.

Rewards ignore reasons

If a child is not complying with our requests, rewarding them can fix things fast. But if we do not take the time to understand ‘why’ a child is non-compliant, we will be forever using rewards as a band-aid and missing the real reasons our child refuses to do as we ask.

Rewards promote selfishness

Rewards lead a child to help others (or obey the rules) when they’ll be noticed. Their motivation for doing the right thing is lower when no one is around to give them a gold star, a sticker, or a treat.

Rewards are hard work for parents

Keeping up with the rewards, the system, and the supervision is generally hard work. Parents regularly report being overwhelmed with the task of monitoring their children and designing increasingly complex rewards systems.

Rewards are often exclusive

While they do not have to be, rewards are often used to pit children against one another to see who can win the prize first. (The same happens in sales teams and classrooms.) Such an approach can be dispiriting, and also lead to the next problem –

Rewards can damage relationships

This can happen in a number of ways. We fail to notice something reward-worthy and our child resents us. Or they call us on it, and we get annoyed that they only do things for the rewards. They see their siblings getting rewards and feel unfairly dealt with, or that we are treating a sibling as a favourite. Or, worst of all, our children begin to see us as a transactional reward-giver, rather than a person who cares about them and shows an interest in their hopes, dreams, pains, and other feelings.

Rewards are actually a threat

Something parents often forget is that every time we promise a reward, there is an implicit threat of punishment as well. While we are saying, “Do this and I’ll give you that goody”, we are also saying “If you don’t do this, you’ll miss out.”

Rewards are the essence of conditionality

To our children, rewards say, “I love you when you do what I want, but when you don’t do what I want my feelings change.” Such an approach is precisely the opposite to the one our children need to flourish.

***

While rewards seem like a nicer way of managing our children’s behaviour, the reality is that we are treating them like things, rather than working with them like human beings. When we want our children to clean their rooms, speak nicely, or get off their devices, we might try the following ideas instead:

Provide a clear rationale for behavioural requests

Explain what you want and why. It seems that when our children understand the reasons for our invitations for certain kinds of behaviour, they are more likely to not only comply, but to internalise the purpose of that request. This increases the chances that they will continue to act in good ways even when we are not asking them or bribing them.

Determine expectations together

Once children are old enough to have basic conversations with us, they are capable of providing input into expectations and behavioural guidelines. Ask them what they think is fair and appropriate behaviour. Work on solutions together.

Use gentle reminders

When your child is not complying with your requests, gently remind them of your expectations without making a big deal about it. If they are unresponsive, stand in front of them, clearly and calmly make your request again, and wait until they respond.

Help

Doing things together is far more enjoyable than being left alone. If the issue is ‘attitude’, help by being kind and patient, and by attuning yourself to their feelings rather than ignoring them or pushing them away. If the issue is chore-based, help them complete it the right way and savour the time together.

Provide unconditional positive regard

Children are shown to be more likely to be kind, helpful, responsible, and even compliant when they feel unconditionally loved and accepted.

Rewards are certain to provide a short-term quick-fix and they can be useful when we are in a spot of bother and need an instant result. They’re also much more pleasant than punishments. However, for a long-term strategy that helps internalise good behaviour, increase motivation, and improve relationships, there are much better ways to work with our children.

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