The Purposeful Parent: Psychologically Based Myth Busting for Parents

The purposeful parent

Myth #3—  Parents should reward children for good behavior.

False. Punishment and rewards are simply opposite sides of the same coin.  Both are forms of manipulation and both are responsible for teaching children that control lies somewhere outside of us rather than within.  

Much like punishment, rewards can give the appearance of changing behavior for the better.

A perfect example of this is the program implemented in schools in the 1990s which used food as an incentive to ‘get’ kids to read more books. While the inherent merits of reading are really quite sufficient, educators felt the need to use bribery to get children hooked on books.  

“Read five books, document completion of each, get a parent signature, and at the end of each month get a gift card for Pizza Hut.”  This program directly conveyed that reading in and of itself was not a quality activity. And what resulted was a group of kids reading—but not so much for the enjoyment of reading but instead to ‘get ‘er done.’ Many students were rushing through, skimming,  and in some cases even cheating—listing unread books. Basically, kids were doing whatever it took to get what they wanted—free pizza. But indeed it appeared that kids were reading.

Now, I believe the expectation was that once the student was turned on to reading the reward aspect could be removed and the reading would continue. Kids could now enjoy reading for its inherent qualities. Well, as with all reward systems, this result is the exception.  We just don’t work that way.  Whether it’s stickers, stars, points, marbles, smiley faces and yes, even grades, they all have a similar effect on all of us—

—Rewards can lead to doing, but they do not promote change in attitude or quality performance.

Rewards can indeed increase the probability that we will do something. But the problem lies with the ‘why’ of it all. Renowned author and expert in child psychology, Alfie Kohn, explains this best in his book ‘Punished by Rewards.’—

“Reinforcements do not generally alter the attitudes and emotional commitments that underlie our behaviors. They do not make deep, lasting changes because they are aimed at affecting only what we do.”

Rewards do not produce quality. On the contrary, they promote minimum production. That annoying question “Is this good enough?” is only relevant when one is more interested in the reinforcement than in the activity itself. We will do what it takes but only what it takes to get the prize.

In addition, rewards can also cause some moral confusion for children. When teachers and parents offer children rewards for doing what is expected it interferes with the natural consequences associated with moral development and subsequently diminishes growth in responsibility. As with punishment, it does not address the reason for engaging or not engaging in a particular behavior.

Lastly, when we substitute an arbitrary reward for a specific behavior it can displace the natural reward and in time the activity itself loses its attraction even when we continue the reinforcement system! (This phenomenon is referred to as the Sawyer Effect.)        

So, let’s refrain from bribing our kids to get them to succeed in school, or follow rules, or to act responsibly or to be kind to others.  Let’s instead create intentional dialogue—allowing children to internalize what works and does not work for them. How about a few examples of responses using both external control (rewarding) and internal control (questions and discussion).  

External control: “Great report card! You got all A’s and B’s! I’m so proud of you;  I’m going to buy you a new X-box game for doing such a good job!

Internal control: “Your report card shows all A’s and B’s.  I know how hard you worked. How do you feel about it? Were you excited to see those grades?”

External control: “You were so good today.  You didn’t argue or hit your brother!  I’m going to take you for ice cream for being so good.”

Internal control: “I noticed a change today.  You were so nice to your brother.  What did you do differently? Was it easy for you? Did you have a better day?”

External control: “Oh, I caught you doing something good!  You picked up that pencil for that other student. You get a sticker on your chart!”

Internal control: “Oh thanks,” said one child to another.

External control:  “If you do all your chores this week I will take you to the movies!”

Internal control:  “When everyone in the family chips in we have so much more time to have fun.  Speaking of fun, let’s all plan to see a movie together this weekend!” (Aha! Do you hear the difference?)

(Of course, we all appreciate encouragement and expressions of gratitude.  These are natural consequences of human interaction and not arbitrary rewards.)

By refraining from rewards and instead of eliciting thought, we provide opportunities for children to realize and celebrate their own successes.  They grow to learn that capacity lies WITHIN and that there is a direct relationship between personal choices and happiness.


About the author

Kate MartinKate Martin has been a high school teacher for 27 years and retired from the Racine Unified School District in 2015. 

She taught students with special needs as well as those in general education. While working with hundreds of parents over the years, she discovered that there was a significant lack of resources and educational opportunities to help them navigate the many demands of parenting today. 

For this reason, in 2013 she founded The Purposeful Parent, offering workshops and resources for parents, teachers, and caregivers.  

Buy the Book by Kate Martin: The Best Thoughts To Think Five minutes Before Bed