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The Problem with Using Rewards (and what to use instead)


Using rewards for getting kids to cooperate is a great way to get short term compliance.

In fact, rewards are much better alternatives to threats, bribes and physical punishment. But, there are long term repercussions for using rewards that many people don’t know about.

One thing that happens when using rewards, is that kids lose intrinsic motivation to complete a task. If a child gets promised a chocolate to clean her room, the room may get cleaned the first ten times… but what about when the desire to not clean the room outweighs the desire to have the chocolate? Will she still clean her room?

Another thing that happens, is that one day, the reward will stop working.

One of my university students told me a story about a primary school boy she had taught during one of her student teaching pracs. The teacher’s method for gaining cooperation was by using pegs on a ladder. If you behaved, the peg went up, if you misbehaved, the peg went down. Most children were compliant, because they wanted their pegs to move up. The boy was compliant too… until one day, he stopped caring about the peg. The boy started misbehaving and the teacher asked the boy if she should move his peg down the ladder because of his poor behavior. To which the boy replied, “I don’t give a fuck about the pegs!

He was a primary school student.

I’ve taught so many classes (high school and university) where the student’s main concern about learning is about what’s going to be on the test.

Interest in the subject? Nope. Rarely.

Interest in what will be on the test, yes.

Fear that they won’t get that good result. Yes. (The good grade becomes the reward.)

A study was done comparing two groups of children. (Although, anyone could replicate this study and get a similar result). One group was given an art activity to complete with the promise of a reward at the end. The other group of children was given the same art activity, but without any reward to complete the task.

Guess which group stayed engaged with the activity longer?

The group that was offered no reward stayed interested in the task longer.

Certainly, there are natural rewards in life. If you go to work and work hard, you might make a lot of money. If you work hard in your garden, you might get a nice harvest. If you practice hard at an instrument, you might get good at it. Notice how I say, ‘might‘. Because, really, there is no guarantee that you will succeed at anything, even if you work tirelessly. So then what… do you become unhappy with life because you didn’t get your ‘reward‘?

See, there needs to be some intrinsic motivation to continue with an activity, regardless of the fruit of your action.

Getting Kids to Cooperate Without using rewards

Use a playful approach to discipline
Getting kids to cooperate need not be a mundane chore. There is a fantastic book called, ‘Attachment Play‘ by Aletha Solter, on using various forms of play that create connection and a more harmonious family life, or wherever it is that you deal with children. (Actually, I recommend all of her books) Not only does using playfulness get kids to cooperate, but it also creates a special connection time with a child. I wrote a short blog post on different types of playful discipline.

Lend an Ear to A Child’s Frustrations
Children should be free to express their emotions. If a child is disappointed about something and they go to cry about it, let them know that you understand their frustrations. Just because you let them cry about something, doesn’t mean they are getting their way. On the other hand, if the request is reasonable, there’s no harm in letting them have their way. But, if the request becomes too unreasonable and you have to say ‘no‘ and they throw a fit, let them know you understand. Validate their emotions as much as possible. When they are finished voicing their complaints and being heard, they will be much more cooperative.

Give Children As Much Autonomy As is Reasonable
Children should be able to make as many of their decisions are is reasonable. For younger children it can be simple things like choosing their clothes, or deciding where they want to go for a walk. If we don’t micro-manage their every movement, they will be more likely to cooperate when you really need them to.

Let Children Learn Through Natural Consequences
You’re upset because you stepped on your toy and broke it. If we pick the toys up, then we can keep them safe.”

Are your shoes uncomfortable?” (sometimes my daughter insists on wearing inappropriate shoes for the activity that we’re doing) Next time, if you chose the shoes that are most comfortable for walking, then your feet will feel better

They’ll get it eventually. And, when they do get it, the learning becomes authentic because it came from their own experience. There are many things that cannot be learned through natural consequences (like road danger), because the consequences are too great. If a quick risk assessment proves that the consequences are not that dear, then the child can benefit greatly by letting the learning experience occur naturally. Letting children learn through natural consequences also makes life easier for the parents, because, again, we are not micro-managing.

Build Pathways of Communication Rather than Punish
Children will start avoiding the parents or the teacher if they know they will get into trouble. If we can communicate in a way that does not emphasis blame, disgust or anger, then our children will be more willing to cooperate with us when they’ve gotten into trouble.

The cute goat picture has nothing really to do with rewards… it’s just cute.


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