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Why bribing kids with rewards doesn’t work

Offering rewards or incentives to your child can be so tempting in moments of desperation. This is because rewards can often help you get what you want…in the short-term.

But do rewards help motivate children in the long term? No. In fact, they hurt motivation.

Why don’t rewards work?

Rewards undermine intrinsic motivation

Children are born intrinsically motivated. No one offers a baby a reward or bribe so that he’ll want to learn to crawl. No one offers a 3-year-old an incentive to be interested in why the sky is blue or how plants grow. No one has to because people are born curious and driven to work hard to develop their minds and bodies.

People are naturally motivated from within.

Offering rewards can actually take away from this beautiful natural motivation by making a child want to do something for you rather than for himself.

For example, say Johnny naturally enjoys raking leaves. It’s a great chance to be outside and use his big muscles and accomplish a useful task, which feels good. But maybe one day you ask him and he says “no” because he’s busy building with blocks. You have company coming over and you really want the leaves raked, so you offer him a reward, maybe candy or extra screen time, for doing it. The leaves get raked and Johnny is happy because he got an extra 30 minutes on the iPad. Everyone wins, right?

But what about next time? Your child may no longer want to rake leaves for the joy of it. Now he expects a reward. He is now extrinsically motivated.

This is not only a small annoyance—now you have to stockpile candy or rake the leaves yourself—it is a fundamental change in how a child sees work.

Intrinsically motivated children work hard because they enjoy a challenge, they want to learn how to do new things, and they enjoy the sense of satisfaction that comes from contributing to the community.

Extrinsically motivated children do things for others’ praise or to get a prize. This mindset can follow a child into adulthood, so it is important to support their natural intrinsic motivation while they’re young.

It turns out rewards don’t work for adult behavior either, as habit and human nature expert Gretchen Rubin writes about here. For both children and adults, rewards only work in the short term.

Rewards diminish an activity’s value

Telling your child that you’ll give him something to complete a task implies that the task is somehow unpleasant or not inherently valuable.

For example, “You can pick out a toy from the toy store if you turn in your homework every day for a month” implies that the homework is not worth doing for its own sake.

Interesting studies have been conducted around this effect in schools. In her book Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, Angeline Lillard discusses the science of motivation. She seeks scientific data comparing the traditional schools’ reward-based grading system with Montessori schools, which emphasize intrinsic motivation and often do not give grades.

Among others, Lillard cites Mark Lepper’s study of 3-5 year olds which tracked how offering rewards impacted their interest in coloring with markers. One group of children was offered a reward (a fancy gold star plaque) for coloring and the other group was offered nothing. The reward group was found to use the markers only half as much as the group that was not rewarded a few weeks later.

Offering a reward implies that an activity is unpleasant or not inherently valuable on its own, hence the need for the reward.

Rewards ignore the underlying issue

Offering a reward for a desired behavior ignores the underlying reason that a child is refusing. For example, a parent might think, “My child refuses to read, I’ll give him a sticker for each book he reads.”

This type of system fails to ask why the child doesn’t like to read. Maybe he doesn’t have any books that interest him and he would love a book about dinosaurs. Maybe the books he’s being asked to read are too challenging (or not challenging enough!). Maybe he would enjoy reading more if you were sitting next to him reading too or he would enjoy being read to.

If your child is refusing to do something, there is generally a reason why, and offering a reward can prevent you from discovering what that reason is.

So if rewards don’t work, what can you do instead?

Connect

Children are always more willing to do what you ask if they feel connected, just like you’re most likely more willing to go above and beyond for a boss you feel connected to.

Make time to connect and play. If your child refuses to get ready to leave the house every morning, try waking him up 15 minutes earlier and snuggling or reading books together. Try connecting before demanding.

Ask why?

Depending on your child’s age and temperament, you may be able to ask him directly why he is refusing to do something, or you may need to observe him and try to decipher the reason yourself.

His refusal may have a direct link to the task (i.e., his shoes are really tricky to put on and he gets frustrated) or it may be about something else (he’s too tired to clean his room at night and it would work better to ask him on a Saturday morning).

Figuring out the reason for the refusal will help you address the underlying cause of his behavior.

Offer help

Whether a child actually needs help or not, showing solidarity and offering to help may encourage his willingness to participate. Often, offering help and being present are enough.

You might say, “That homework sounds tricky. I’m going to sit at the table with you while you do it so you can ask me questions if you need to.”

Or with a younger child who often refuses to pick up toys, it might be, “Wow, there are so many toys on the floor, this looks like a two person job. I’ll put the dolls away, what are you going to start with?”

Many of us grew up receiving rewards and incentives for good behavior and it can be second nature to use them with our own children. It’s worth trying these other tools, though, to protect your child’s innate sense of self-motivation.

Offering rewards just leads children to seek more rewards, while connecting and reflecting on behavior can achieve long-term results.

Christina is a Montessori teacher for 3-6 year olds, certified by the American Montessori Society. She currently stays home to take care of her son, James. She lives in Austin, Texas, and writes a blog, http://montessoriishmom.com, chronicling her journey through motherhood the Montessori way.

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