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Do reward systems for good behaviour help or hinder?

The concept of rewarding children with stickers, treats or small gifts for good behaviour is not a new one. In fact, many parents see it as a positive way to encourage their children to learn new skills. Some experts, however, warn against this strategy saying it can inadvertently cause a child to stop wanting to do these things without a reward.

As with so many parenting decisions, your view on the topic is a personal one; every child, parent and household are different after all. My point here is not to tell you the right answer, I don’t believe there is a one-size-fits-all answer, rather I aim to share some of the relevant research with you so that you can decide for yourself. So, what do the studies say? In 1971, Edward Deci, a psychologist from the University of Rochester in the US, conducted a 3-day experiment on 24 undergraduate students. They were asked to arrange various 3D puzzle pieces into different orientations. If they couldn't do it within 13 minutes, he showed them how. On the second day, he offered half the participants $1 for every completed puzzle. On the third day, no one was offered any money and participants were told they could “do whatever they like” during each 13-minute session. He found that those who were rewarded spent more time attempting the puzzles on day two than on day one or three, a finding he claimed proved that taking away rewards caused a “decrease in intrinsic motivation." Critics of this study point out that the sample was small, the findings were not statistically significant (meaning they might have been down to chance) and the participants were all keen to have a go at the puzzles - a scenario which is at odds with why most parents use reward systems in the first place (they are generally used to encourage a child to do something they would otherwise rather not!) In 2001, psychologist Judy Cameron found that rewards increase motivation by boosting the amount of time people spend on unappealing tasks. But at what cost? Does rewarding behaviour mean a person is less likely to do it again if the reward is not present? Julia Ulbe and her colleagues studied this question in 2006. She found that 3-year-olds who were given rewards for sharing on one occasion were less likely to share in the future when rewards weren’t offered.

Critics argue however that this isn't how reward systems usually work, parents wouldn't expect a child to ‘get’ the concept of sharing after one single experience whether they were rewarded or not, rather they might continually praise a child for sharing over a period of time until the behaviour became more routine.

An example of this from my household – I noticed my children’s table manners could do with some improvement. I tried reminding them each meal time but this soon felt like I was nagging and not making much progress, so instead, I made a little card that sat next to their placemat with 3 age-appropriate skills I wanted them to work on. When I spotted them doing one of the skills on their list, I gave them a conker (it was Autumn at the time and they loved them). If I saw all three skills by the time they’d finished their main course, they were allowed a treat (a healthy pudding). This really motivated them and after a couple of weeks, I removed the cards (without making a big deal about it) and, for the most part, the behaviours are now routine. Had I rewarded them during just one mealtime, I very much doubt they would have remembered the skills in future, not through defiance or because I wasn’t rewarding them, but because they hadn’t practised the skills enough to make them routine. Clinical psychologist David Anderson, senior director of the ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute in Manhattan, said 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.”

Of course, the child has to be keen to earn the rewards. Where sticker chart type behaviour management systems fall down is where the child is no longer motivated by the reward. Perhaps they no longer care for stickers or their dislike for whatever it is you’re wanting them to do is more powerful than their desire for the reward. Erica Reischer, author of the article, ‘Against the Sticker Chart’, calls this system of motivation a ‘reward economy’ and describes it as “a transactional model for good behavior” Arguing, like others, that the danger is that when ‘Children come to expect a reward for good behavior…(they become)…hesitant to “give it away for free.”

Others may worry that this sort of behavioural system is akin to bribery – and that this approach may be inadvertently teaching them that it’s okay to assert control and effectively threaten another person as you use the reward to manipulate the child to “do what I say or you’ll miss out on something good.”

When put like this I have to admit it makes me feel uneasy, I certainly don’t want to be an authoritarian parent but then again, if the reward system is being used positively – to spot and praise positive behaviours and to reward these positively – much like we might buy ourselves a bar of chocolate as a reward at the end of a long week, we are reinforcing and rewarding the behaviours that the child should quite rightly feel proud of not asserting ourselves as a judge to issue punishments.

Again, I’m not here to persuade you one way or another. It may be that a reward system works at some points in your parenting journey and not at others. It may be that you feel strongly one way or another about their use. My only advice and this comes from my experiences in the classroom as well as a parent, is you need to make the system achievable. Children need to feel successful; they need to see that they can achieve whatever it is they are working towards. They need to feel that they are doing well and they need to know that you’re their biggest cheerleader, that you want them to succeed and that you care and are proud of them when they do. I’d love to know what you think. Do you use reward systems like sticker charts in your house? Do you feel they’re successful? Let me know your thoughts below.

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