Do Children Need (External) Rewards?

'Summer Chore chart' photo (c) 2007, Mary-Frances Main - license: 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.

Related posts:

Dealing with Challenging Children

Staying Sane with Challenging Children

Teaching Our Children: Modeling Is Not Enough

How to Deal with Bullying

Sleep Training at the 92nd St. Y




  1. I believe that everyone benefits from reward and punishment, we work hard to get paid, that’s a reward, we don’t speed on the road or break the law because we will get punished if we do. all of society is based on some sort of reward/punishment system, be it the tangible (a paycheck) or the intangible (Schar mitzva in Olam Haba). Having said that, I also believe that we should not reward children for basic good behavior (i.e. being polite, listening to parents etc.), however rewarding them for going the extra mile makes them excited to do it again. For example I don’t generally reward my children for getting into pajamas every night, but the other night my husband was coming home late and i am at the end of my third pregnancy. I told my girls if they got ready for bed nicely, i would give them chocolate milk rather than plain milk before bedtime, and it worked beautifully making bedtime a lot easier on poor ima who is barely dragging herself around. so using rewards as an occasional thing works well. Also behavior modification works on a reward system (sticker charts etc) and that has gotten a lot of positive feedback and it does work. Reward and punishment really only work when the child understands that it works, i don’t think a baby really understands it, babies under one who wake up during the night usually want comfort, because something woke them up, with holding that comfort only teaches them to distrust those around them. So I do believe in using rewards/punishments as long as they are used in the appropriate and correct way, so i might give my kid some stickers if she cleaned up her toys, but not a trip to Disney world! (we are saving that one for getting them to sleep in their own beds all night rather than co sleeping)

  2. I also have used rewards/punishment when raising my kids. The reward has always been a hug and a smile and a “thank you love”. The punishment a stern”NO”, and and explanation why that is not accepted behaviour. I have somehow discovered that the same treatment accidently has been used on my husbond, and yes – I myself find that I love being awarded with a hug and a smile. My own behaviour is of course always perfect and never needs correcting, but that´s just the way it is!

    • I agree with you, Maria. I do believe that they should learn that their actions have consequences – if my children don’t put their dirty clothes in the laundry basket, then they won’t have clean clothes to wear (they’re teenagers) but it of course has to be age appropriate.

  3. tikunolam says

    Our goal, when raising our children is for them to become internally motivated toward prosocial behavior. Before internal motivation develops, positive reinforcement can serve to foster its development. Positive reinforcement includes praise and hugs. Children by nature want to please and making their parents happy or doing something that earns approval is itself a “reward” or “motivator.” Children tend to internalize the positive reinforcement and they no longer need a hug to do what it is they now believe they should be doing even when no one is looking.

  4. I would love to hear more… seriously!
    I’m currently dealing with a very (!) strong willed busy 3 yr old and trying not to use material rewards. I prefer using positive reinforcement as a tool… hugs and praise when she makes a good choice (i.e. use words or get help instead of lashing out on her little brother when he bothers her).

    I need more Hannah! be?vakasha 🙂

  5. I believe that my job as a parent is to teach my child to be a good and responsible person. So I don’t like to give rewards for things that are good and responsible things to do (not hitting, cleaning room, speaking respectfully etc), since I want them to be self-motivated.
    However, there are many things we want our children to do NOT because they are objectively good and responsible things to do, but rather simply because they are convenient for us – I might need my son to get dressed in a huge hurry one day because I overslept and will be late for work, or I might need him to sit quietly and smile for an interminable amount of time for a family photo shoot, etc. In situations like that, I don’t have a principled objection to a reward, since I don’t think the behavior I want is objectively so desirable in the first place – it just happens to be what *I* want.
    By the way, I put sleeping nicely at night and using the toilet into that second category. There is nothing morally wrong with nightwaking or using diapers. If I want my 3 year old to leave me alone at night and to use the toilet, it’s for purely selfish reasons. Therefore I wouldn’t have a problem with rewarding him for it.

    • Channa, to me the reason doesn’t make a difference. Making an effort for the convenience of someone else in the family is just as important as cleaning up after oneself.
      I had this discussion recently with a mother who felt she was being selfish because didn’t like her to touch her child to go into her room and touch her stuff. But every family has rules and as long as they aren’t overly controlling, they are legitimate.

  6. I really try not to reward my kids with anything extra because I want my kids to be motivated by the right reasons. For example: I want my kids to be motivated to learn in school by their love of learning not because they will get a reward for getting a good grade. The truth is if I bribed my kids to do better in school they might get into a better college but I would rather have self motivated learners than a kid at an Ivy League school.

    That’s how I want them to look at anything they do in life. I want them to keep their rooms clean because they want to not because I gave them a gold star or a present. This does require more work on my part. It means that if I want them to clean up I actually have to be in their room and do a little coaching while they do it.

    My son used to leave multiple pairs of sock on the floor everyday. For years I had to ask him to pick them up. It was a big pain and I wasn’t always calm about it but he does not leave his sock on the floor anymore and he picks them up because he knows that sock don’t belong on the floor not because he will get a reward IF he cleans up. His motivation is internal.

    Any time I have ended up bribing my kids it always seem to backfire. Recently my 6 year old did not want to go get out of bed and go to school. Since I would be late to an appointment if I drove her to school that morning, in desperation I told her I would get her ice cream after school if she got on the bus. Well guess what she said the next morning. Yup, she wanted me to buy her a treat when she got home if she got on the bus. I told her no and I did have to drive her to school that morning but she never asked me for a treat again to get on the bus.

    Yes I know that not everyone has the luxury of being able to drive their kids to school because they need to be at work but for me it is always worth the extra time and effort to get my kids to be self motivated to do the right thing for the right reason.

  7. Observer says

    Zippy is right, I think. Yes, we want to teach our children to be internally motivated, but in the real world, even adults do not do everything only for the right reasons. And, for some things, it really makes little (or NO) difference what the motivation is as long as the behavior is correct. In the example of the socks, I don’t think it make one whit of a difference why the child picks them up as long as he does it.

    Our tradition of Chinuch explicitly includes the use of rewards for young children. (The RaMbam is most commonly quoted on this issue.) The idea is to get a child started, to set the process in motion, but wean him from the outside prizes to the correct motivations.

  8. I agree with you Hannah. The terms I learned was that the reward should be the natural outcome. If they do something good, the natural outcome is to feel good. I also agree that doogmah eishit – personal example – is the best way to teach kids anything.
    For me, the most important part of parenting is not to look at the short term outcome, but the longterm outcome. It could be that a kid is doing something I disapprove of today, but I want to teach him to avoid that in the long run. For example, my son turned 18 this week adn told me he wants to go to a bar to celebrate with friends. I disapprove of this, but did not forbid him to go. I want him to be the kind of person who does not want to go to bars in the long run. If I turn the issue into a power struggle now, it will just encourage him to go to bars. I told him what I thought and time will tell….

  9. Wow… you ladies are all such principled, disciplined mommies. I do feel that rewards are a sign of weakness, and yet I still resort to them a few times a day. I can achieve so much with the promise of “you’ll get an igloo after you….”
    At this point, igloos are the currency of trade in our family!

    • Naomi, in an earlier version of this post I mentioned that I also give rewards, unconsciously or not, several times a day (you can have x after you do y). It’s a hard pattern to break.

  10. Thank you Mother In Israel for this very interesting post.

    I sometimes despair because I still have to tell my children all the time to pick up their things, help me set the table or clear up after the meal, put their clothes in the laundry basket, even brush their teeth. They are 10 and 11 and secretly I believe it’s because I bring them up badly.

    I never offer rewards, except when I ask them to do a ‘big’ job for me, like some time-consuming garden work or something.

    All I do is always ask and remind them. They do it when I ask, but I ALWAYS have to ask.

    Is this normal? Is there something I can do? Will the penny finally drop in a few years?

    They are sweet kids with good hearts, and well liked both in school and in shul, so I’m not complaining too much, but I would like to know if I’m doing something wrong, and if it can still be put right, regarding helping around the house and cleaning their rooms.

    I can’t really ask my mother because she thinks I am too strict with them, even though she was about a billion times stricter when I was growing up, lol.

    • Vered, there’s a pretty good chance that your kids will take better care of their teeth and clothes as they hit puberty. As for resistance to household help and cleaning rooms, that may be something we might have to live with. (If anyone has a great system please share!) My mother left me alone but I had battles with my father about it–not something I want to repeat.

    • Vered, don’t worry. Your children are perfectly normal. Mine are 13 and 15 and they still need reminding. I get in from work and most days their dirty lunch dishes and school lunch boxes are still around (not true – the lunch boxes are normally still in their bags!). So I have to remind them.

      I got fed up of all their things left in the lounge – there’s now a plastic basket under the sofa. I put all their things there. It only takes me a second, the room is tidy and they have to search for their stuff. Every so often, when the basket is full, I tell them they have one day to empty it completely. What’s left at the end of the deadline I throw away.

      I basically work on not nagging them (don’t have the energy) but I do demand every so often that they do things. They each have chores and those also have deadlines. If they pass those, they don’t get TV, computer etc till they’ve done their chores. It’s not a punishment (and nobody treats it as such), more a reminder that some things have to be done, others don’t.

    • Vered, I think you are doing a good job. All you have to do is ask and it gets done!

  11. I’ve used rewards for my older children, usually on the lines of sticker charts, with (sometimes) a treat at the end, for behaviours including staying in your own bed, and toilet training. With the younger ones, I haven’t done it so much, although toilet training has been reinforced with bribes, to the extent that we have worried about having kids who don’t wear nappies, but also don’t have any teeth left! We are now at a stage where we don’t really need sticker charts, and they are working on natural consequences, eg if you go to bed late, you will be tired the next day… We did once leave an older child behind from an outing because they had nothing to wear as a consequence of not having put their clothes in the washing basket. They used the time to do their own laundry and no-one else has ever done that again.

  12. Vered, you say that your kids do what you ask them to do. To me it sounds like you’re doing something very right. I think that 10 and 11 is a little young for children to be focused on what needs to get done — it’s just not on their radar. A few things I’ve done that have helped kids develop this awareness: 1. give them regular jobs to do and train them. 2. Ask them to do other tasks on a one-off basis as I need. 3. Making a chart of everything that has to get done and divvying up the tasks (I did this for Shabbat and it has been helpful. 4. Work on my own hesitation to ask them to work around the house.

    Now that I have adolescents I am starting to see the “rewards” of my efforts. One Shabbat recently my husband and I both fell asleep during dinner. My 15yo son led two of his brothers (ages 12 and 9) in clearing the table, on his own initiative. This is after years of asking them to clear and their complying. So I think it does happen, just not at age 10-11.

    • I should add that this is the same son who when he was young would fall on the floor as though he were poisoned when it was his turn to set the table. And he hid some of the (family’s clean) laundry he was supposed to fold so that he would have less to fold. They do mature!

      I told my 17yo daughter about this, and she also thought you’re doing great. She also pointed out that most responsible adults were much less responsible and pitching-in when they were 11. Certainly true for me!

  13. Hi! ,
    Its really amazing how good the Jewish People are! I’m a BT(Baal Teshuva) and every day I see more and more new beauty in being ‘frum’! I was learning with a kid from a broken home and was shocked to hear that the parents although divorced, still have a good(or satisfactory) relationship! They always tell their children good things about the other spouse to enhance harmony in an otherwise sad situation, and because they want the kids to repeat a good word back to the other spouse. I’m a relative newlywed, and its a bit hard when you don’t know the ropes. I learned about the shalom bayis hotline(732-5231112) which provides free chizuk and positive tools to help people who are struggling. I always meet new rabbis from your publications and its really inspiring. You guys are great and keep up the great work!
    -Shira Zuretsky

  14. Fantastic article – I agree with every word!

  15. My 12 year old was having trouble getting up on time in the morning. He has a hasaah which he was missing more and more frequently. I stopped giving him a ride to school when he missed the hasaah – he took the bus. Then he asked me one day if I would give him 10 shekels at the end of the week if he caught his hasaah every morning on time that week. I was dubious – I was convinced he go on asking me for 10 NIS every week, but he insisted that the incentive would help him get started, and then he’d already be used to getting up on time. So I agreed. He got his 10 shekels at the end of the week, and now it’s been 5 or 6 weeks and he still hasn’t missed his school bus once. He knew that the reward would help him and he was right, and I’m glad I went along with it.
    I sometimes reward myself – say on Friday morning, if I make the challa, fold the laundry and clean the bathrooms then I can sit down with a coffee and read for 20 mins!! If we enjoy it as adults, why shouldn’t my kids enjoy a material reward every now and then!

  16. Thank you so much for all those who have replied to my question. I feel much happier now when I think they don’t leave all their stuff lying about because they disrespect me, but because they’re too young to feel responsible about it yet. It sounds silly but sometimes it really helps to have more experienced mums give you a little hint. Thanks!

    We want kids to be intrinisically motivated – schar mitzvah is the mitzvah itself and the biggest punishment is doing the aveirah . Plenty of research showing that rewards and even non-verbal rewards like praise undermine intrinsic motivation and reward. when rewards are self determined – kids chooses a reward to help him meet a goal , we don’t have the control element

  18. I think rewards are fine and good motivation for young children and adults alike. I get paid for going to work, we all work hard during the week and are rewarded with a day of rest, and children sometimes need a liitle bit of reinforcement to help them to complete tasks. I had a system at my house for reading; if my kids practiced with me 5 times, they got a little prize. One time it was a puzzle, another time a mini flashlight. Now that reading is getting easier, they don’t need the reward anymore and enjoying books has become satisfying and they are proud of themselves when they can read on their.
    It’s a perfectly good idea to use an external motivator when it’s needed and then fade it out after a few weeks when the challenge has been met.

  19. Since when does one have to get out of bed to enjoy a milkshake?