Reader Leah asks:
Where do you stand on rewarding children? Do you think it’s a good idea to reward children for positive behavior, or for refraining from negative behaviors?
Disclaimer: I am sharing my own personal views. Take what works for you and your family, and leave the rest.
When my oldest was a baby, a lot of people told me that babies should sleep through the night by the age of four months.
One friend quoted her pediatrician, who said: “If you give your child a milkshake every time he wakes up in the middle of the night, of course he is going to keep on waking up.” This sounds logical at first. But if you got a “milkshake” just before bed and another first thing in the morning, would the promise of a third compel you to get out of bed? I doubt it, unless you were really hungry or something else was bothering you. And with babies we are not even talking about a sweet, fattening drink. Okay, we are, but it’s the mainstay of the baby’s diet.
(Note: I recently attended an online lecture by Maureen Minchin. She mentioned that the assumption that babies sleep through the night in the early months, which appears in many pediatric textbooks, was based on a misreading of a 1957 study by Moore and Ucko. While 70% of the babies in the study started to organize their sleep at around 3 months, half of these began waking at night again within a few months.)
This concept of reward and punishment is central to how our society views raising children, even in situations when it’s completely inappropriate—like withholding food and comfort from babies to train them to sleep more.
Kids don’t need prizes or even praise to learn to sleep on their own and use the toilet, barring developmental issues or power struggles. We don’t reward children for learning to crawl or walk or talk. We would never tell a child that we will take away their toys until they start stringing two words together. These things might not happen at the rate we are told they should, but they will almost always happen on their own. I see parents putting a lot of pressure on themselves an on their children. But if the child isn’t ready, the promise of a reward won’t help. And if she is ready, the idea of being like the bigger people in the family is enough of a reward. Children want to grow up and have more control over their environment.
But what about other behaviors, like cleaning up after oneself or doing household chores? If parents start young, kids will internalize these behaviors too. Children do need someone to model for them or teach them, and let them know our expectations. When the child is not used to doing it, a reward or prize chart can be a good way to instill a habit. But we want to stop the prizes before the child learns to expect a reward for everyday tasks.
In real life people get good grades or salaries for completing some tasks. Most tasks, though, earn less tangible rewards. People do things because it makes them feel good. By making children feel good about themselves when they do the right thing is how we instill values of integrity, compassion, and responsibility. We want children to have internal motivation to do good for others and for themselves. But by introducing external rewards like food, stickers and prizes, we send the message that children need a tangible validation for these activities. The undesired consequence is that kids may want not to do the right thing when they aren’t getting a prize. This approach fosters materialism. It leads to kids who make calculations.
Leah also mentioned rewards for refraining from bad habits or behavior. Rewards send the message that avoiding the behavior is special — above and beyond our normal expectations. Other children in the family don’t get rewarded for not hitting their siblings. And why should they,when avoiding hitting is easy for them? Having a child who is violent or disruptive is a big parenting challenge. While a reward chart might play a role, it’s rarely going to be enough to fix the problem.
I have enough drafts hanging around, so despite not feeling “done” I am going to go ahead and hit publish.