To Reward or Not to Reward… or “how to earn a blueberry dwarf hamster”

Recently, I’ve been hit with the radical notion that I don’t want to offer rewards to my children to entice good behavior.  This feels radical because reward systems seem to be everywhere.  They are especially prevalent in school, but many of our friends also use them (including paying their children for doing school work and getting good grades) and, admittedly, we have tried our fair share of reward systems — usually in rather lame and desperate attempts to achieve compliance from the kids in areas where they should be behaving well without the need for any extra incentives.  Aside from the fact that these systems have been only marginally successful around our home, I am seeing more clearly how counterproductive and flat-out distasteful a reliance on rewards can be.  However, undoing the reward mentality may not be easy.

When the kids entered public school, the rewards began to come fast and furious.  The systems were elaborate and varied:  buttons in a jar, tickets for good behavior, chances to draw from “the treasure box”.  To add to the madness, candy was often used as a prize.  (This was totally shocking after three years at a Montessori school where children were not even allowed to have cookies in their lunches.)  I’ll never forget the day Zoe came home from first grade and reported to me in a disgruntled tone, “All I got today was a pack of Skittles and a lousy ‘Good Job’!”  Wow — talk about creating a monster!

Jane Nelsen, author of the Positive Discipline books says this about rewards:  “Praise and rewards teach children to depend on the external judgments of others instead of trusting their internal wisdom and self-evaluation.”  And further, “Do not bribe or reward children for doing what needs to be done.”  For example, “Caring for their rooms is their job to help the family, and they don’t need a prize to do it.” from Positive Discipline A – Z.

In her Positive Discipline blog, Nelsen writes, “Praise and privileges…can change behavior (for a while), but they cannot change the person who engages in the behavior — at least, not in the way we want. No behavioral manipulation ever helped a child develop a commitment to becoming a caring and responsible person. No reward for doing something we approve of ever gave a child a reason for continuing to act that way when there was no longer any reward to be gained for doing so.”  She points to Alfie Kohn’s book, Punished by Rewards:  The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes as a comprehensive source for information and research showing that rewards are not an effective teaching method.

Expert opinions aside, here are my quick observations about our experiences using rewards:

1) They don’t work terribly well and generally involve a lot of nagging and reminding, which is what I’m trying to get away from.

2) They are too complicated, and either we or the children forget to use them, creating inconsistency, which begins to chip away at any possible effectiveness they may have.

3) It makes me mad to reward my children for doing things they should be doing anyway.

4) They demand and expect rewards for anything and everything, begin to bargain for rewards, and constantly seem to be upping the ante in regard to what they feel they should earn as a reward.

5) Even when the rewards are “working”, I feel like an ineffective parent who is teaching the wrong lessons to her children; I know there has to be a better way.

All of this came to a head at a recent family meeting.  Near the end of 4th grade, we started a reward system where the kids earned a playing card each day that they did not fuss when it was time to turn off the television/ computer.  (This already sounds bad, doesn’t it?)  The cards could be traded in for rewards of different kinds, but they had to accumulate at least 30 cards — about a month’s worth — before they could trade them in.  The one saving grace of this system was that the kids thought of it themselves as a solution to our screen time tension. Since it was their idea, they were fairly committed to it, and it did seem to have some positive effect on their behavior.  During the summer, the system dwindled.  It was revived when school started again, but we were not using it consistently.  This past Sunday, I announced that we were not going to be using the cards anymore.  I tried to explain my reasons why (probably not very well).  Zoe immediately began to cry.  Unlike Alexander, who had already traded most of his cards in for a treat, Zoe had been saving hers for a hamster — a big reward that took 90 cards to earn.  (How did I ever get into this?)  Understandably, she felt like she had been duped and was terribly disappointed and upset.

But then we began discuss other ways she could achieve her goal.  I talked in terms of “getting ready” to have a hamster, rather than “earning” it.  We made a list of things she could do to get ready and talked about how these things would prepare her for hamster ownership much more than earning cards for good behavior that had nothing to do with caring for a hamster.

Here is the list we came up with:

1) Research blueberry dwarf hamsters — what they eat, the habitat they need, whether they are good pets.

2) Look at and price cages at the pet store.

3) Feed Sam, the rabbit, every morning and evening.

4) Learn how to clean Sam’s cage.  (I will show her.)

5) Plan and prepare a place in her room for the hamster to live.

We also set a tentative date for when Zoe might get a hamster after she had accomplished and practiced all these things.  To my amazement, she calmed down and accepted this plan — letting go of the onerous card system without further objection.  Gotta say — it was pretty cool, and I felt like I had done good!

So, now that I’ve seen the light, I’m wondering how this is all going to work out.  Will I be wise and creative enough to come up with good, effective alternatives to reward systems?  Is it hopeless to try to buck the trend of “praise, rewards, and gold stars”?  Who am I to think I can influence my children without some enticing pay-off to dangle in front of them?

And, most importantly, will this little guy be joining our family of three cats and a bunny?

(Picture made by Juliet van Ree)

Time will tell and, as with other challenges mentioned here, I hope to report back on my progress as the year goes on.


One thought on “To Reward or Not to Reward… or “how to earn a blueberry dwarf hamster”

  1. Hear, hear. I gave up the reward system awhile ago. I am of the mind that if you fuss when it’s time to turn off the computer/TV then you forfeit your next turn. Tasks and chores are part of taking care of yourself as a human being, i.e. – fixing food, cleaning up after yourself, washing your clothes, etc. The last thing I want my kids to discover when they leave home is that they cannot feed and care for themselves and their environment (especially a shared one like a dorm room!). The only rewards we use are similar to yours, ‘screen time’ after homework and tasks are completed. They do get allowance each week (if they have done their chores all week) and sometimes get extra money for extra jobs, like cleaning the garage. They now do their own laundry now, as well.

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