Boy with cookie

Rewarding Your Children to Get Compliance is Not the Best Idea

As parents, when it comes to discipline, there are many methods we may employ. While there is no perfect way to parent, there are many popular practices that not only can harm the relationship you share with your children, but also harm their ability to grow into a responsible, self-disciplined adult. To reinforce the behavior you define as acceptable in your children, it’s easy to believe rewarding that behavior and punishing or ignoring other behaviors is an effective strategy. Research provides staggering evidence against this approach, and, coincidentally, this evidence supports the concepts behind Empowerment Parenting.

The book, Punished by Rewards, by Alphie Kohn, provides a thorough review of the research examining the use of rewards to shape behavior. This concept lives on because, yes, it works! You can get many children to do what you want by rewarding positive behavior, particularly when you find a reward the person values. The problem is that they are only working for the reward. They have no desire to improve or increase the occurrence of the behavior you want except as it relates to them getting their reward.

What does this mean for the long-term? It means that you are not reinforcing the behavior you believe you are. Once the reward is no longer offered, research shows that the behavior will not only stop, but it will also drop to an even lower frequency than was exhibited before the reward was offered.

When we offer rewards for behavior we want to see, another thing can occur is the child becoming dependent on the reward system. Eventually, it may appear that all the child will work for are bribes. Then, we blame the child for being unmotivated when it was really our rewarding behavior that created that condition in the first place!

Another thing Kohn tells us is that anytime we offer a reward for a specific behavior, we decrease a person’s interest in the behavior we are trying to create. Sure, we can get him or her to engage in the behavior to get the reward, but it isn’t because they like or enjoy the behavior. In fact, just the opposite occurs. Whenever we offer a child a reward, we are sending the message that the behavior we want them to engage in must be a tedious, uninteresting one, or else why would we have to motivate them to perform it? We actually teach them to hate the behavior we are trying to reinforce—talk about counter-productive!

The final reason I want to mention is the idea that, when we use rewards to influence someone’s behavior, we are interfering with that person’s right for autonomy. We are all born with the inner desire for freedom; we don’t like to be restricted or controlled. Wanting to determine our own destiny is human nature. Anytime we try to control another person’s behavior, no matter how subtly, we are discounting the person’s right to their autonomy, and the use of rewards is just that: a subtle attempt to control another person’s behavior. The people who are most susceptible to this are those with a high need for freedom. They will smell the manipulation attempt from a mile away and will resist your attempts to control them.

Am I saying spontaneous rewards are bad? No. When we spontaneously celebrate accomplishments, there is no attempt to control. We are simply recognizing that celebration is in order when someone achieves a particular thing. The person wasn’t aware he or she would get a reward for complying, so he or she didn’t experience the feeling of being manipulated.

The thing that Empowerment Parenting works to create is intrinsic motivation. We were all born with a desire to accomplish things. Somewhere along the way, behaviorism and behavior modification may have reduced our internal motivation. Empowerment Parenting teaches parents how to help their children regain their sense of power by fueling internal motivation. Check out the Empowerment Parenting eBook here.

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