The Over-Rewarding of Children

Having a blog is dangerous.

Before a blog, you just keep your alternative thoughts in your head.  You smile and nod at people as they walk by.  You sit in church and PTA meetings and look normal. But once you have a blog and start writing about honest feelings and strong opinions, your brain gets exposed.  People may relate to you or they may think you are ridiculous.

Once that post is published, there is no more nodding or smiling or acting like you think like everyone else.  Your readers know where you stand for good or bad or right or wrong.

This is one of the posts where I have thought about the topic for a long time.  But when I used to bring it up, people would look at me weird, like what’s her problem? It is not the normal thought process.  It is not what I see at church.  It is not what I see at school.  And it is not what I see in homes.

So at the risk of some of you thinking I am ridiculous, I am going to state my opinion clearly:

We over reward our children.

Here is a treat for this; a sticker for that; food for this; money for that; let me throw you a bone.


My courage to finally state my opinion came after I pinned this bookmark and after class Valentine parties.

This bookmark is a reward system for reading the Book of Mormon.  The family gets to go do a fun activity after they finish reading each book in the Book of Mormon.

For those of you that unfamiliar with the Book of Mormon, it is a book that Mormons consider to be scripture.  We believe it to be another testament of Jesus Christ.  The Book of Mormon is made up of several smaller books.  Some have 1 chapter; others have 30+ chapters.

I pinned the bookmark because I think it is cute.  I think it is clever.  I think it is creative.  I think this is a good mom doing her best and making family life fun. And I would love an excuse to go to Olive Garden for dinner.

Plus just that morning (that I pinned it) we had finished reading the book of 2nd Nephi (one of the books in the Book of Mormon).  It was great timing. I thought maybe it wouldn’t be too late to start this reward program.  We could go skating and out to icecream at the same time and catch up.

But then I started thinking about my children that morning.  They were so excited that we finished 2nd Nephi!   They were smiling and their eyes sparkled.  They couldn’t stop talking about it. I kept saying “Wow! We did it.  We finished 2nd Nephi!”  (I was amazed we made it through those Isaiah chapters.) We metaphorically high fived around the room and bragged about how far we had come.   The kids beamed with pride.

After I reflected back on our happy morning, I realized we didn’t need a book mark.  We didn’t need a reward system.  The kids were proud to finish 2nd Nephi and that was enough. It felt good inside to accomplish a hard task together as a family.  We all felt personal satisfaction for our diligence and obedience. The kids had an intrinsic reward.

To attach food or an activity to the already rewarding accomplishment, would be placing an extrinsic reward over the top of an intrinsic reward.  The yummy french fries or the fun of swimming would overwhelm and overtake the true good feeling of reading and learning and keeping the commandments.

The intrinsic reward would be masked by the extrinsic reward.

Now you might say that we can feel good about what we did and still get a reward.  But let’s look at this matter closely.   One reward is a natural extension of the experience.  While the other one is superimposed and trite. One reward is real and one is a fake. The real one lasts longer and feels better, but it is more subtle.  Whereas the fake one pops a punch and makes a quick impression.  And the more you have the fake ones the more desensitized you are to the real ones.  (For a minute there I thought I was talking about boob jobs.)

Soon the real rewards don’t feel good enough and you prefer the outer awards. But they are not long lasting and of worth so you must seek more and more to feel the same level of accomplishment.

(Research backs me on this by the way.)

Here is another example in my own home of the point I am trying to make:

We have been working on dinner dishes at our house.  We try to beat 15 minutes each night working together.  You can read about our dinner system here.  I thought maybe it would be fun to start keeping track when we beat the clock and then after a certain number of successful times we could go out to eat and not have to do dishes.  Great idea, right?

But then I saw my kids working hard night after night to beat the clock.  We worked together.  We formed strategies at the table and got on any kid that wasn’t doing his/her part. We hugged and high fived when we beat it and we groaned when the clock beat us.  And we try again the next night.

I realized the kids didn’t need any extra motivation.  Beating the clock was enough.  That was a thrill.  Working together was enough. Why would I superimpose an external reward on an already internally rewarding feeling?

And the final push to post this opinionated blog came last week at your typical school classroom Valentine party.  I was in charge of a game and I went with my always successful, go to Cupid’s Arrow.  This is where the kids get to stick cotton swabs in straws and blow them out in an attempt to hit heart targets.  What kid doesn’t want to blow objects through a straw and send it flying?

As I was explaining the game to the first group, one of the boys said, “Do we get a treat if we hit a heart?”  I held back a “Hell no!” and said, “I’ll give you a high five and you’ll feel good inside.”

But I started to question myself.  Should I have brought a treat to give them at the end?  Another mom in the other station brought treats despite the fact that they were going to get 30 treats from classmates and a doughnut from the party.  Was my game not enough on its own?  Was I going to have to respond to the treat question over and over again?

Interestingly, not one other kid the rest of the day (and I did the game in 2 classes) asked me for a treat.  They were all engaged and focused on hitting the target.  They wanted to try different cotton swab positions and angles of the straw.   Sometimes they went for distance.  Sometimes they went for accuracy.  Kids were elated when they hit a heart and bummed when they missed.   They were competitive with other classmates and with themselves.   The internal rewards abounded.

Afterall, the kids had just thought.  They just strategized.  They just improved.  They just tried.  They just failed.  They just succeeded.  They just had fun.

If I had given them a treat at the end of the game, no matter how small, I would have dulled those intrinsically rewarding feelings and masked them with sugar.  I would have contributed to the “what are you going to give me” epidemic that runs through our society.

Since I pinned that bookmark weeks ago, we have finished 5 more books in the Book of Mormon.  The same excitement existed every time we finished a book.  Not because they were going to get a late night or a trip to McDonalds, but because it felt good to read, and learn, and finish.

Now the time may come when I need to bust out this bookmark – probably around Alma 29 when the kids realize we are not even half way through the book yet. My kids will most likely get bored with scriptures as they get older or disengaged or disinterested.  I may need to place an incentive before them to get any dishes done around here.  The day may even come when a spitting through a straw no longer excites a  boy.

But not now.  My kids enjoy reading and working together.  They are feeling intrinsic reward and those are enough.  The less I place extrinsic rewards over the top of intrinsic rewards, the more natural their feelings are.  And the longer they will last.

So don’t rush in with a reward when the kids don’t even need one.  Only use candy, food, treats, points, stickers, and money to motivate IF a child needs motivation.  (We do a reward system with our morning routine because I can’t get anyone to make their dang beds.) Otherwise you will mask and dull what already feels good.  You will create a need when a need didn’t exist.

I know I am in the minority on this.  Most people I see think nothing of giving out treats and rewards. What’s the big deal after all?  It is just a sucker.

You’re right.  It is just a sucker.  But the cumulative effect of sucker after sucker, treat after treat, reward after reward, in class after class, day after day, has a price.   The effects are subtle, but they are costly.  I want my children to feel on the inside and for themselves what true rewards feel like.  I want them to experience that hard work rewards.  Reading rewards. Learning rewards. Peace rewards. Love rewards. Relationships reward.   Sugar does not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

18 Comments
  1. Can’t believe you were hesitant about this post. I feel the same way about over rewarding our kids and im thinking many others do too. We rarely give treats in primary for that reason. They don’t need it and I don’t see a reason in treating every little thing. When my girls ask the question, do I get anything for doing fill in the blank, I say, yes a hug or a high five. We need to learn to accomplish things to simply do just that. Not for the reward. I’m def not pinning that bookmark. My parents would laugh at the thought of treating all their kids to the olive garden for reading. Not gonna happen here either.

    1. I hesitated to pin the bookmark. One, could we really afford to take the whole family (6 + baby) to some of these things. Two, that is a lot of rewards along the way. And three, I agree the true reward is the accomplishment. I am glad I clicked to read further and get your thoughts…I totally agree! Getting ready for baptism and the feeling they will feel being so prepared and nurtured by the spirit. Reward enough!

  2. Bravo!!! I love this. You are so right. I actually was watching The View this morning and Elizabeth was talking about something very similar. She thinks she tells her kids “good job” too often. That she does it when there really isn’t anything all that special and it lessens the value of it when they have done something special. Just something else to think about. PS: I loved the boodmark, too. Tried it. Nothing. Good call!

  3. Tiff, Great post. My pet peeve is giving rewards for already expected behavior. In my book you are expected to do what you are expected to do and you are punished if you don’t. Guess I’m really mean!

  4. I think it all comes down to the spirit of entitlement.we don’t want our kids to feel entitled to the “reward”.

  5. 100% agree! I had a conversation on this just yesterday with my 6 yr old. For the second time in just over a MONTH her primary teacher gave out regular size candy bars for sitting reverently and engaging in class by answering questions and bringing scriptures. Excuse me? My 6 year old doesn’t need to get candy for participating in her class. It is required by me. I remember when I was about 12 I was ‘to cool’ for primary and my Mom came in the primary room and saw me goofing off. After church she made me call my teacher, the primary president and the person doing sharingtime to apologize for my behavior. That has stuck with me. As an adult I sometime don’t want to go to my RS activities, I want to curl up on the couch with my book or tv show etc, but I can’t. I always have that voice in the back of my head telling me that this may be good but it will be BETTER to go. No external motivation is needed. That’s what we need to teach our kids.

  6. Totally agree with you, as both a mom and a teacher! I don’t have a treasure box in my classroom, and my students often groan when the answer to “What do I win?” is “The good feeling you get!” I think the “reward everyone for everything” mentality is ruining our kids. Everyone gets a trophy, even if your team is the worst in the league? Can we say sense of entitlement? Thanks for writing this and letting me know I’m not the only one!

  7. I don’t always agree with you and your opinions, but this here is BANG ON! I couldn’t agree more – I’m totally supportive of intrinsic rewards! That’s what life HAS to be about, and you’re being a great mother trying to instill that in your children. If nothing else, the ‘stuff’ all these rewards generates just galls me (it can only eventually end up in landfill or as clutter or, in the case of food, as unhealthiness). Kudos to you!

  8. Good for you for speaking out about this!
    I’m reading a book right now called unconditional parenting that focuses on this exact issue with our children, and how to raise them without the reward.
    Liked the “what are you going to give me” line…one can see that expectation in every age in our society.
    It needs to be spoken about more openly and honestly, so thank you for doing just that.

  9. Stephanie Abbott referred me to your blog, and I just wanted to say, great post. Totally resonated with me, and I pinned it so I can refer back to it.

  10. I don’t know if you remember me… we haven’t seen each other in several years but I am one of Chad’s many cousins and just happened onto your blog through pinterest. It is amazing! Thank you for your opinion. I had never even thought about how too many rewards can have a damaging effect on kids. #4 will be here in about a month and I am grateful for the advice that will help me as a mom through the next several years.

    1. Of course I remember you Kim. You are one of the beautiful Hall sisters. I am so glad I got you thinking about this rewards thing. I think as moms we try so hard to be cute and fun for our kids that we don’t always consider the long term consequences to their character development. A high five or a hug or just a good feeling can go along way! Good luck with baby #4 and hopefully we will get to see you soon. Thanks for reading.