2 of the most popular methods to manage children’s behaviour at the moment are rewards and praise.
You can’t give enough praise, they say. And give them a reward for good behaviour. That way they’ll be conditioned to do the thing we want them to do again. You know, like you do with dogs.
Sometimes it’s hard to get our head around concepts that seemed so benign in our pre child existence or even our early child rearing stages. I always felt a little uncomfortable with certain aspects of parenting that are commonly used, and widely accepted, but as a first time mum with no experience of children or healthy role models I had to learn from other people and books. I didn’t feel confident enough, or know enough to assert myself on these issues.
Fortunately a lot of the books I read were respectful parenting books and the problems with rewards and praise were discussed there, which put theory behind these niggles I was having. It still felt relatively abstract though so I dabbled here and there until I could get a feel for my own parenting style and let some of the theories settle in.
I’ve always tried to be an authentic parent who models the behaviour I respect and would like to teach my child. If I don’t want my children to lie, I shouldn’t lie to them. Praising when no praise is due is essentially lying and giving rewards in exchange for good behaviour is basically bribing and manipulating.
There’s a ton of research showing that praise and rewards actually remove the child’s intrinsic motivation. Praise can encourage them to perform but only for the satisfaction of the reward – our approval. Their true sense of pride is dampened and they become people pleasers.
Studies on rewards have shown that the children not receiving a reward for their participation in an activity enjoyed the activity much more and were more likely to continue or repeat the activity. Children given rewards get into a bartering system where they won’t do anything until you agree to give them something for it. Nothing is done for the good of the family, only what they can get for it. It’s based on this old school thinking that you have to manipulate and control children into behaving the way we want as they couldn’t possibly do it out of love and respect for the family.
The biggest problem for me with rewards is that it is essentially a punishment. If the child doesn’t or can’t perform how you want them to, you take away the reward they had been so looking forward to. This leads them to become self critical, hitting their self esteem.
Ironically, we gave rewards a try when my son was going through a period of real low self esteem and struggling to perform many of the tasks he ‘should be doing at that age’, at the request of an Early Help Support Worker. Sure enough, the problem wasn’t him not getting himself dressed in the morning anymore, it was the utter disappointment and shame he felt when he was so tired or emotionally low that he just couldn’t do it. The days he really just needed his mum to come and help him and care for him and love him. And I was supposed to take away his treat. It just felt evil.
It was worth doing it as I then knew why I was instinctively so against it and also I realised that kids all have different capabilities. Yes, he struggles with a lot of things at 6 that my daughter at 2 can quite easily do, but is that a reason to reward her and not him? Like I mentioned in my tantrums post – the children who find it easiest get the most rewards – how is that even slightly fair?!
So for the child who fulfilling others’ expectations doesn’t come easily, they have to try very hard to figure out what people want from them rather than learning naturally, in time, in a more authentic, honest way.
My husband also pointed out that rewards are just another form of control and so many behavioural issues stem from the child’s lack of control.
Giving food as a reward brings the added problem of emotional eating. We can all relate to eating chocolate, or drinking wine as a ‘reward’, a ‘treat’ or in times of commiseration. I don’t think this is healthy and wish it wasn’t so hard for me to break those habits.
And yet another problem is that instead of living in the present, they’re living for some future reward. This is a problem for adults too and strangely enough just came up in the book I’m listening to – The Entrepreneur Revolution. Many of us do work we don’t enjoy and then reward ourselves come payday. But how much better would life be if we enjoyed our work, our life and our present. Instead of teaching our children it’s normal to endure things they don’t enjoy, how about we focus on allowing them to find enjoyment in the present.
So I am now a more empowered parent trusting my instincts to lead me right and getting to know my children’s individual abilities and struggles even better. And to try to handle as much of it with love and patience as I can instead of using disconnecting power plays. The reward we get from that is all we need..