A few months ago, my husband and I met a psychologist who advised us to start using rewards with our 6-year-old. Our son is happy, but he struggles at times with his behavior and emotions. (What kid doesn’t?) We wanted to help him become more self-sufficient, more proactive—to get dressed in the morning without prompting, to clear his plate after breakfast, to say please and thank you, to put his dirty clothes in the hamper. We also hoped to curb his frequent meltdowns. A positive parenting approach that reinforces good behavior could make this happen, the psychologist told us.
The internet, which of course I consulted immediately, staunchly disagreed. In parents’ exhausting journey to raise good kids, I learned, they should never, ever use rewards. A 2016 article in the Atlantic, “Against the Sticker Chart,” warned me that rewarding kids for good behavior “can erode children’s innate tendency to help others.” Money ran a story in 2015 titled “The Hidden Downside to Rewarding Your Kids for Good Behavior.” Education guru Alfie Kohn has written an entire book on the subject, Punished by Rewards. The concern, which can be traced back to research from the 1970s, is that rewarding kids for being polite, doing chores, or finishing their homework extinguishes their innate desire to do those things down the line. Worse, I was told, rewards could make kids callous and manipulative. I imagined my son leering at me: “How much will you pay me not to whack my sister with this flip-flop?”
But when an extreme stance is presented on a rather broad topic, I start wondering. And what I’ve found after digging into the research is that these blanket condemnations are unwarranted. Rewards can be useful in some situations and inappropriate in others, much like every other parenting tool. The literature on the potential dangers of rewards has been misinterpreted while the findings on its benefits have been largely overlooked.
Do you want to be your kid's cheerleader, you want to praise and encourage them, and you want them to succeed? We should move the goalposts, we really have to. If you start by telling your kid he’ll get a reward each time he writes his name, and then you see he’s really struggling, revise your plan so that he gets a reward each time he writes a single letter. But then, once he enjoys writing, ease off the reward giving—because at that point, as that vast body of research suggests, rewards may stunt his intrinsic interest.
Again: I’m not arguing that parents need to use rewards. There are many ways to shape your children’s behavior. But the scaremongering claims that rewards will harm your kid or extinguish her zeal for life simply aren’t backed by good evidence. If you’ve considered positive reinforcement but have been scared off by the dire warnings, reconsider. You might, like me, find reward programs rewarding. My son is blossoming into a generous, resilient, and responsible child, and I have a lot fewer clothes to clean up.