If someone walked up to you right now and offered you $500 to take off your jacket would you do it? You'd very likely accept and I could successfully announce that rewards work. However, rewards can never truly help someone to commit to a task or an action, or give them a reason to keep doing it when there's no longer a payoff.
Alfie Kohn, a renowned author and parenting expert, proposes two methods parents use when raising children, "working with" strategies and "doing to" strategies. "Working with" strategies involves problem solving with a child with the main focus on accomplishing long-term goals for that child. "Doing to" strategies on the other hand, are quick fixes to stop or promote a behavior.
"Doing to" strategies emphasize too much parental control and can be seen in use when rewarding children. While rewards seem to be beneficial on the surface, research on the topic suggests otherwise.
Why don't rewards work?
Kohn suggests that not only do rewards promote temporary obedience in children, but sends the message to children that they are loved only when they are well-behaved or do something that impresses us. He says, "When we use punishments and rewards and other strategies to manipulate children's behavior, they may come to feel they're loved only when they conform to our demands."
What is your child feeling?
John Gottman, Ph.D, is famous for his work on marital stability and relationship analysis. In one of his books, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child,__he emphasizes the importance of recognizing a child's emotional expression as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching.
Think about a time, for example, when your child is misbehaving in the grocery store. Does rewarding them with an ice cream cone if they behave appropriately, or stop misbehaving, actually teach them about their emotions and how to effectively cope with what they're feeling?
What about praise?
Along with materialistic rewards like toys or food, there is another type of reward parents give children far too often, and that is praise. Foster Cline, M.D. and Jim Fay discuss in their book, Parenting with Love and Logic, the difference between praise and encouragement.
When parents praise their children, even when they do a bad job, the false praise leads to disrespect for the parent and doesn't cause the child to feel good about the job they did. It may actually lead them to behave badly to prove how bad they really are at a task or in a situation.
Encouragement, on the other hand, allows the adult to ask questions about a child's performance and gives the child a chance to evaluate his own behavior or output and what can be done to fix it.
The message here isn't that rewards are bad, but that our use of rewards in parenting is ineffective in the long run. Kohn gives some suggestions on how a parent can use "rewards" that don't send a message to children we love them only when they are well behaved.
Kohn says, "The alternative is to give them things for no reason at all, now and then, to offer a special treat or gift - the chance to do something fun, a book or toy of special interest - simply because you love them ... there should be no strings attached."
As parents, it's important to reflect on how effective our parenting strategies are in accomplishing our long-term goals for our children. Rewards can be beneficial when they are not based on good or bad behavior. Children want to feel loved all the time, not just when they've done something we approve of.