For as long as parents have been parenting and children –well, being children— reward systems have been a way to let kids know when they’re on the right track. From classrooms to living rooms, kids are reassured of their good behavior through candy, certificates or just a simple “keep up the good work”. Rewarding is seen as something that is part of the learning process for kids during their stages of development. The definition of rewarding in itself means recognizing an achievement, recognizing an achievement and motivating one can sort of become one after a long day and several arguments with a preschooler. This is where rewards and bribes all start to seem like one mess of stickers, cookies and tantrums.
What’s the big deal? The two concepts seem so alike that it can almost feel like there’s no harm in whether you give the gold star before or after the chore. When you need change and cooperation fast, the easiest thing to do may seem to just go ahead and promise some sort of reward after they’ve reached the expectation. This is where things can get sticky (for more reasons than just spilled juice boxes). Once kids begin to understand that a touch of their tantrum and a little of your desperation could result in great things for them, you’re not likely to bring them back into the light without some serious effort.
So what’s the difference? Order is a very important thing to remember when establishing whether or not you’ve resorted to bribery. Normal reward systems usually consist of a prize, compliment or award of some sort being given after the task has been completed, but there’s more to it. Giving a child an incentive right before a task instills in them the idea that they should be rewarded for acting in a way that is to be expected. If you are promising your kids video game time or candy right in the middle of a tantrum or when one is expected, they are being programmed to think that it is acceptable for their normal behavior to fall below this when they are not being rewarded. Children should not expect to be rewarded, at least not all the time, which brings us to our next point.
Make it a surprise, not an expectation. If kids are constantly expecting a pat on the back or a lollipop with every deed done right, they’re going to experience a lot of disappointment in the real world. Over-rewarding can also turn against you when they begin to expect an award of some sort for simple tasks. They may even go out of their way to try to earn rewards. While surprise breakfasts and kind-of clean floors can be nice at first, it will soon become something they are asking of you, rather than it instilling the good habits you’d hoped. One of the greatest parts about receiving a reward for kids is the surprise element. An important part of encouraging a child is to notice their efforts when they think they’ve gone unnoticed. This is a wonderful way to keep them humbly trying to improve themselves –also it doesn’t hurt that their overexcitement is really cute.
So how do I fix it? The best thing you can do at first is explain. You’d be surprised how much kids can comprehend. You have to calmly let them know that in order for things to work out for them and you, you have to make some changes. There’s a slight possibility this won’t go over well with them, in this case it’s probably best to start making changes little by little in a way they won’t immediately notice. With luck and a lot of patience, your kid will soon be back on the normal learn, reward, repeat system.