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Jen

Why I Skipped the M-n-Ms and Other Reasons Not to Reward

Posted by Jen on July 17, 2009 at 7:00 AM in Jen
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Okay, I hear some sisters are breaking out the candy in hopes of getting some little people on the potty along with some practice at making the grade so they'll be ready to perform in the big leagues when the time comes. Well, I've got no complaint with rewarding kids for little things here and there to get the ball moving when it comes to cultivating interest in new skills, but I've found with my kids that the road to rewards is pretty slippery. Here's why I ultimately abandoned rewards as a way to get my kids on board.

Rewards set you up for constant negotiation. No problem if you're raising a future lawyer (cough cough Kris), but not the happiest of things to live with on a day in day out basis. Do you really want argue with your kids about whether or not your price for this grade or that mastered skill is worth their effort?

Rewards shift the focus to the outcome versus what can be gained in the process.
What prize can compare to the experience of gaining mastery over something difficult or new? My kids could obsess on what they'll get when they finish, but I'd rather they set their eyes on the prize of solving a problem or learning something new for the sheer joy it brings.

Rewards train kids to gauge progress by an external measure instead of learning what's right for them. I want my kids to be the judge of how they're doing--and I believe with or without the reward to push (or repel) them--they already know. This is an important skill that can only grow when we give them the chance to deeply engage in the task instead of fixate on the outcome.

Rewards steal the happiness you can get from doing something well just because you want to. My kids are truly miserable when I bring my praise to the mix--especially when they are engaging in a skill-building activity that they chose on their own volition. There's nothing more exciting than watching your own skills deepen--rewards divert you from the real prize of learning how to do something you chose completely on your own.

Rewards undermine your intuition which may give your kid essential information about where their interests and talents truly lie. How many jobs have you had because the paycheck was right or the benefits couldn't be beat? How many of those same jobs ended up having absolutely nothing to do with your core interests or talents? Let's give our kids a leg up by letting them experience their true potential without roping them into a rat race that will ultimately leave them feeling less talented or free.

Rewards are ultimately demotivating as inevitably the joy of the prize doesn't quite seem worth the effort.
This is a real shame because kids need to learn that the act of learning is a reward in and of itself and rewards completely minimize a task's intrinsic non-material payoff. I think a lot of the time our kids miss out on lots of possiblities simply because they've been confronted with a reward for mastery that hardly seems worth the trouble.

Do you use rewards with your kids? Where do you draw the line?

28 Comments

Sam writes...

This really gives me a lot to think about. I think there's a big difference between using M & M motivation for potty training and giving out cash for grades - even though, I admit, I was always a tad bit jealous of my school mates who got cash rewards for their grades! But...if they are only chasing good grades for cash, I would think it would make it much more tempting to get a good grade, no matter what, through cheating possibly.

Thanks for this post, Jen. I'll be mulling over this, for sure.

Shawn writes...

You're so right .. and with my girls both 3.5 now I'm starting to skip the rewards altogether. It is more hassle for me in the long run AND, they don't care about it. Rewards, while I do still offer them on occassion, don't seem to impress my kids. Glad I"m not alone.

Amy writes...

So, I'm not a mom, but this caught my eye on Twitter because I'm a teacher, and this is oft-debated in the classroom. I read an interesting article about schools that pay kids to attend and get good grades, and the overwhelming conclusion is that rewards DON'T work in the long term. The goal is that kids will not feel pressure to do any task, and will learn to be rewarded intrinsically. Kids are naturally curious and determined to explore the world and succeed (look at babies who learn to roll over, find their toes, etc.) and if that is allowed to develop, they'll be more successful overall.

I love this, Jen! Well written!

Tracey writes...

Well said, Jen. Have you read Alfi Kohn? I agree with you and with him on this issue. Note to the teacher/commenter above: Kohn's book "No Contest" is an excellent primer on this concept as it relates to schools.

Beth writes...

Every child's different! Your right one way will not work for every child that's why these things are always up for debate!

Amber writes...

I don't use rewards, for pretty much the same reasons you've listed. When I was considering my approach to discipline this idea was really foreign at first. But I've found it pretty natural in practice, at least so far.

I think that a lot of the time we're best served by just getting out of our kid's way. They will figure out most of the things that they need to figure out, whether we use sticker charts or time outs or not. Every family is different, of course, but in my family I've found that external rewards just aren't necessary to motivate my kids.

Sarah writes...

I agree with all this in theory, but I don't understood how it is practically applied with a headstrong child. How do you teach a 4 YO to focus on "process" and "evaluating their own success" when it comes to cleaning their room? I mean, I get the giant philosophical umbrella, but how to you apply that in the moment of the face off when they're saying " I WON'T CLEAN MY ROOM"? Would love some discussion about how to take this from the theoretical to the practical, which is where my own high faluting parenting philosophoes always lose traction.

Patience writes...

I hear you Sarah. I feel the same way a lot. I'm not sure how to make it work IRL, especially with a kid who is totally on her own program. I find myself coming somewhere in the middle. Here's a question- Is incentive the same as reward?

I find myself saying things like, "Hurry, let's clean your room because we are going to get ice cream!"

We are getting ice cream anyway, but it's a nice addition to motivate.
who am I kidding, it totally is...

I think this also depends on personality types. I have a sister, who shall remain nameless and surprisingly wrote this article, whose heart giddy-ups at the very words "gold star". Some kids will respond, some kids won't. I wonder if Jen's kids just weren't really motivated by reward because of their hardwiring? or is it the old nature vs. nurture?

Henna writes...

Even showing pride in your child's achievement is a form of reward. So, rewards are not useless. It's materialistic rewards that shift focus from the important. You could make some erudite commentary on how children should be focused on the task-completion, not external reinforcements, but that would be misguided. Having your child crave your approval is positive. Its a form of respect. You need to practice it while potty training (I've got a 20 month old who's almost done) and hope a little of the respect sticks when they're in high-school and being offered drugs, alcohol, and such. If they still need your approval when they're 15, you've done nothing wrong.

Kim writes...

I'm a nanny, and I've been involved in raising many different types of children. All I can say is that every child is an individual. What works brilliantly with one will fail miserably with another. You simply have to find the method of motivation/reward that works best for you.

I personally begin with praise. Most kids are SO happy to make a parent proud of them that it's reward enough. Plus, hugs don't melt all over your hands!

Erica writes...

Heck, rewards don't even work so well for training my standard poodle. I give her a reward when she retrieves objects. She also likes to snatch objects she shouldn't have and run off with them to eat them. So if I reward her when she gives the taboo objects to me instead of eating them. She just runs off to go get something else she's not allowed to have! Over and over I see it really doesn't even work for her. Maybe she is just too smart. A game she LOVES -- frisbee, or retrieving tennis balls, she can't even do that unless she gets a treat when she retrieves it--this doesn't just apply to kids. Treats truly don't work in the long run.

Chip writes...

There's nothing whatsoever wrong with rewards. Most of you aren't even arguing that. Most of you are arguing the merits of spiritual, emotional, or social rewards versus material rewards.

Some rewards are a good learning tool to help get the right behaviours started. Gradually a parent fades the more material rewards, but continues more spiritual, social and emotional rewards until the right behaviours are rewarding in and of themselves.

Dividia writes...

Rewards are everywhere and in every process. Why do you work out? To be skinny and healthy. REWARD! Why did you write this article? To be paid/recognized (even if you may have left off the PhD from your name to seem like an average Joe or don't even have a PhD.) REWARD!

Honestly, this article has no medical backing and every child isn't your child. I didn't get rewards because my family was poor. Being able to eat at night and stay in the same run down house every night was our reward. But, I learned to negotiate a price for my work, whether it was cutting Old Man's Cafferty's lawn or bathing Mrs. Anderson's 3 Pomeranian. I didn't enjoy it, even though I did a good job. That was necessity. I worked hard to receive my doctorates. I work hard in a field that I enjoy (because in order to enjoy the hard work, you must be doing something you enjoy, not doing something out of necessity. They are even strippers who enjoy their work, but I've seen people working jobs just for money and they always complain about their work.)

My children understands that hard work will bring good things to you. It may start out with motivating them with ice cream to clean their room. But in the long run, they understand that if they want a nice car, nice house, they are going to have to work for it. They see the fruits of their labor.

Gini Hyman writes...

In the long run, it doesn't matter. I haven't seen too many 5 year olds start school in diapers. However, M & Ms or "Princess panties" can be a great incentive to get a 2-3 yr old to focus on the project at hand. I have raised 3 children and presently have 4 grandchildren under 4. Each child is an individual and when they are ready, mentally and physically, they get potty-trained.

I also think it is important for children to understand what is expected of them and to praise a job well done as well as take responsibilty for not doing chores, getting good grades, practicing ballet or piano,etc. I see nothing wrong with rewarding an exceptional performance such as straight "A"s.

I do have a problem with parents who bribe or whose children expect an outrageous reward for doing what they are supposed to do or doing the right thing in any circumstance. This leads to an attitude of entitlement but does not build self-esteem or character.

Karen writes...

Chip I agree. As children grow, the same with discipline, rewards become obsolete. You're not going to get a teenager to clean their room by offering ice cream. This is the age where words mean more in development than chocolate bits. Small children use materialistic rewards. I've never used any rewards for potty training. That's a little too young and that teaches them that after making a stink you eat. Children start understanding rewards after they have experienced, understand and remember the joys of ice cream, candy, etc. Around 4, I start rewarding because when your child says things like "When I was a baby...", they remember and can communicate back to you that they have some recall of experience. But I only reward on big jobs that need extra help and I don't reward edible treats all the time. Most of the time we do fun activities like staying longer at the park, going to the movies, making a big mess outside with finger paints, mommy playing with toys with him. So cleaning a room, he gets the toys picked up, help with the bed, etc. Until one day, when he was six, I go to help him with the room and he has beat me to it. He even kept it a secret by closing the door. He also made an attempt at folding his clothes and putting them away. However, he went as far as to separate them by color. He didn't even ask for a reward. He wanted me to make sure he did it right so he can keep smiles on mommy's face. I rewarded him with a full day of mommy's attention by taking off work on a Monday, letting him skip school just as long as there was no tests and that he would make up the school work. We ended up going to the water park for the whole day, helped him with his schoolwork, watching some dvds at home, ordering out pizza and roasting marshmallows over the outdoor fireplace. He was the envy of school when he got back Tuesday and told everyone what Mommy did. He had been swimming. He had never been to the waterpark because I refuse to take an infant or toddler somewhere they won't remember and can't fully utilize. You'll never see a toddler on Space Mountain and they are easily frightened by stuff they don't see on a regular basis, so giant Mice and Ducks wanting to smother him with false affection ... absolutely not.

Now that he's a teen and going off to college, he been doing things just to surprise mommy. He affected by what I say, like the time I told him I was disappointed because I knew he could do so much better in his chemistry class. That weekend after those grades, he had taken almost his entire allowance and bought a chemistry set, asking me to help him with it. How could I resist? He was rewarding me by letting me participate in his efforts to be better. I ended up putting the money he spent back in his account with a digital note attached.

He's leaving for college this August. He's been working since he was 15, saving money for this event. He applied for every scholarship, student loan, etc. He received two scholarships and one grant, covering the cost of college, but not text books or the meal plan. He used his own money for that, going to half.com and getting the 15 meal plan, which feeds him Monday - Friday. He's made good decisions based on the rewards of those decisions.

So last month, I was flabbergasted when for my birthday, he pulled out two tickets to Grand Bahama Island for a weekend stay for Mommy and Daddy. At first I thought there was a catch and I first scolded him for wasting his money. But Mommy taught him how to be thrifty. He bought them weeks in advanced on Airtran. I couldn't be prouder. However, I told him that I wouldn't be putting the money back into his account. He said that he knew that just because he buy things doesn't mean the money is returned and that was just for the chemistry set because it was toward education.

So in the end, my rewards have rewarded me with a great son that I wish a wonderful to. Rewards do work sometimes. It's just based on the kid and how you raise them. Rewarding my kid worked for me. Not rewarding your kids could turn them into kleptomaniacs because they may feel like they will get nothing out of their hard work. I'm not saying they will, but sometimes being rewarded let's them know you care as well.

Carolyn writes...

I am a public school teacher and agreee whole-heartedly with this article. Both at home and at school I do not use a reward system. I also don't believe in any type of punishment or public humilation. What I do believe in and use is recognition for a job well done and natural/logical consequences. I have been asked, time an time again, how I am able to have such a well managed class. Beyond Discipline, by Alphie Kohn is a fantastic book regarding this issue. There is also a book, Teaching Children to Care, that is excellent. Raising and teaching children takes a lot of time and effort. Throw away those stickers and charts and take the time to "teach" children how to be responsible, productive citizens.

Jeannie writes...

I agree and disagree and have worked with children in different capacities for more than 30 years. To each his own. We used different methods with each of our children. In dealing with children, I agree with those who say that each child is different. I use rewards for some things and not for others. I lay the ground rules and the children learn that rewards neither will be given in every situation nor are they appropriate for every situation. I will give rewards as motivators at other times and since I set the times, they become very effective.

The basic bottom line is that nothing with children is an exact science and once we as a society stop using an absolute guideline for raising and teaching children, and use the variances to our advantage, we will be much more effective in getting our messages across to them.

Instead of following a rule book, look at each situation and enjoy finding creative and innovative ways to approach it. I think you will find it rewarding in the long run to know that you were able to tailor it to fit the needs and when you look back you will marvel at the differences in the way things worked with each child.

stephanie writes...

i read "unconditional parenting" by alfie kohn when our now three-year-old was just past her first birthday. it opened my eyes to the dangers of m&m and other over-praise / conditional parenting rewards for behavior.

it made me a sad to know so many kids are being treated like pavlov's dog just for a darn sticker, or whatever. i wasn't interested in that method whatsoever.

recently on the beach, we overheard a dad of 4 say to his littlest, "if you don't stop throwing sand, we're not going to play mini-golf and get ice cream." i had a feeling, that with three other kids, they were taking them to mini-golf whether she stopped flinging sand or not.

so, my question is to the parents who to try to bribe or cajole their kid(s) into "good behavior" as part of day-to-day, unconscious parenting is, why bother to bribe them if, in the end, you're reneging later?

i'm not totally crazy for alfie kohn, but his theories and philosophy on parenting have made me think .. and in my humble opinion, a consciously thinking parent is a happy parent. and happy parents = mostly happy kids.

Colleen writes...

amen sister!

i am also a teacher and see daily how the effects of "rewarding" kids all the time affects their school work as well. they end up with the attitude of "what do i get if i do this?" instead of working for the knowledge and skill.

i worry about the future.

Jeni writes...

I'm a mother/full-time step-mother of 5 kids who I love very much. I'm also a psychology student studying to become a school psychologist. I thought I'd post a link to a scholarly article about this subject called "Undermining Children's Intrinsic Interest with Extrinsic Rewards" (http://66.102.1.104/scholar?q=cache:FVBUbvne5m8J:scholar.google.com/+author:"Lepper"+intitle:"Undermining+children’s+intrinsic+interest+with+..."+&hl=en) that studies this very thing and proves the author's viewpoint.

If a child loves to read, giving them a reward for reading lessens their internal desire to read. The work becomes geared toward the reward, rather than for enjoyment and internal reward.

There's nothing wrong with praising children for a job well done, but do we want them going to school, focused on the Benjamins rather than on the satisfaction of a job well-done, as evidenced by their grades?

Loved the article!

Karin writes...

Say what you will, M&Ms really helped with potty training my little boy. I think we used one bag, and then we were done with it. I plan to do the same when it's time to train my daughter. We didn't have any problem transitioning out of rewards--staying clean and dry became it's own reward, but it's amazing how the thrill of a little reward can motivate a 2-year-old and get the ball rolling.

Catherine writes...

I agree. My children get so excited when they accomplish something, that no lollipop or candy could ever compare to the joy and sense of accomplishment they feel. I hear it in their voice when they say, "I did it, Mommy! I really did it!"

Rewarding with candy or other things sets them up with an unreal expectation for other tasks that are expected of them. The process is what is important. The reward is the satisfaction of a job well done. In the adult work world, I am always amazed at people who feel entitled to incentives and gripe when they are not getting one. Nothing is guaranteed in life, so learning to appeciate the basics is something I try to teach my children, and everything else that comes along will be icing on the cake, so to speak.

It's about setting an expectation (even if it is small), teaching your child the skills needed to reach the goal, helping them with the learning process, and sharing the joy when they are able to do it on their own. It's the process that is important.

Rakisha writes...

Rewards absolutely did not work for me when it came to potty training my now 4 year old daughter. We tried stickers, little toys, etc. Finally after months of back and forth with getting my daughter to steadily use the potty and wear big girl panties, I asked (more like whined) what kind of underwear can I get you to get you to use the toliet all the time? My daughter said "Princess panties."

I bought her princess panties and it worked. She had no accidents and just went to the bathroom when she had to. The fact that all she wanted was some panties that she liked motivated her to use the potty. She was very proud of herself. About a year later, we have successfully night trained her. She likes to get up in the middle of the night and climb into bed with us. We have instilled in her that she must stop at the bathroom before she comes to our room. My oldest takes praise very well. She likes to be praised and receive compliments for doing a job well done.

June writes...

I don't think all rewards should be ruled out...and I agree for the most part, it's right in line with Alfie Kohn's work. (After having worked in HR, even many adults will go for a job with lots of "perks" over one that has a higher salary if given the choice)

However, my now six year old had severe speech and cognitive delays and didn't fully potty train until he was almost 5. The m&ms helped regulate the process, and their novelty soon wore off and he was doing just great on his own and proud to be wearing much more comfortable cotton underwear.

But we also don't treat chocolate like a forbidden novelty either. Because my kids can have a few m&ms here and there if they're in the mood (and by few, I mean 3-5), they don't overindulge, and stop eating when they're full, and don't feel like it's all that special really. It's just a little treat and that's what it should be.

Rob writes...

They by-line did not do this justice. I'm glad curiosity got the better of me and it was well worth the reading.

Nanette writes...

I am a teacher and a parent, and I agree whole-heartedly with this article and Alfie Kohn as well (read "Punished by Rewards" on this subject.) Yes, different children respond differently, but partly based on past experience - they've already been trained to sit up for the cookie. We are selling those children short if we continue those negative practices. Intrinsic motivators (pride, satisfaction, etc) work better than extrinsic motivators (stickers and candies) and we owe it to our children to help them get there. I think that we need to thoughtfully develop that in young children, to help make it practical as one writer requests. One way to do that is to identify and label those feelings for them when they have them, starting very young. "You just went down the big slide for the first time. Do you know that feeling you have in your chest, like you are bigger than you were before? That's pride. You feel proud of yourself." Yes, it sounds both simple and too complicated for a two-year-old, but if that's what you do instead of "Good job!" over and over, they get it.

Olivia writes...

Although I've heard a lot about the pros and cons of rewards, this article is really thought-provoking. It makes me realize I haven't thought enough about the process of potty-training, just the outcome. It's interesting to think of it (and other early skills) as a precursor to facing future challenges. Suddenly it's so much more than potty-training - it's life training! Very inspiring...

Alison writes...

As a teacher and a mom, I agree that bribes are problematic for all of the reasons listed.

In a traditional classroom setting, however, I wonder if the "intrinsic" rewards for learning are ever really at work? I mean, far too many students have their genuine curiosity and love of learning diminished by classroom work that is not engaging. I mean, aren't grades just bribes anyway?

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