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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.

Who said motherhood doesn't come with a manual?

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We're a busy people, this family of mine. And we like it that way. But we're still always looking for simple ways to reconnect.

And most of the time, those moments happen around the dinner table.

I'm not embarrassed to admit we've become homebodies—we vastly prefer nights in watching movies and meals at home to the stress and cost of evenings out. While my husband and I still try to schedule a few legit date nights out now and then, by the end of our busy days, we like relaxing at the table as a family, then putting our daughter to bed to spend time together catching up on our shows or watching a movie. Most of our dates happen on the couch, and we're okay with that.

Dinner itself is a tradition I grew up valuing. As one of five kids, it seemed to be the only time our family was really all together, catching up on our days, making plans, or even just being physically present together. (This reminds me so much of the table we would gather around every night!)

Now that I'm my family's connector, I make sure to prioritize that time (even if most nights it's all I can do to get my wiggly toddler to sit still long enough to get a few bites of her dinner).

Whether we're relishing a home-cooked meal or simply noshing some pizza (because mama is tired, folks), nothing can replace the feeling of reconnecting—or leaving the table with satisfied bellies.

Because something strange happens when you have kids. Suddenly, time seems to enter a warp. One day (usually the days when nap time is short and the tantrums are long), time will drag on endlessly, making each minute feel like an hour until my husband gets home and can help with the kids. But most of the time, when I stop and really think about where we are in this busy season of life, I feel like time is flying by.

I look at my daughter, and I feel like someone has snuck in during the night and replaced her with this big-little girl because I swear she was just born a few months ago. I hug my son, unsure where the time has possibly gone because didn't I just take that positive pregnancy test yesterday? And I marvel at this rapidly growing family my husband and I have built because, really, wasn't he just asking me to be his girlfriend a year or two ago? (Try 10, self. That was 10 years ago.)

As fast as time races by, I don't have any answers for how to slow it down. If anything, the pendulum seems to swing quicker and quicker as our days fill with new activities. With jobs and responsibilities, with more and more activities and play dates for the kids.

But at the dinner table, I feel like time slows down enough for me to pause and look at this little family. I imagine us two, five, 10 years down the road (gathering around a table just like one of these). More little (and then not so little) faces peering at me over the table, asking for another piece of bread or more milk as my husband makes them giggle with a silly face or story.

I imagine them as teenagers, telling me about an upcoming test or asking if they can borrow the car after dinner. I even see them as adults, coming back to visit with their own kids for the occasional family dinner. (Hey, a mom can dream, right?)


No matter where life takes us—or how quickly—I'm grateful for this time and this place where we can always come back together.

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A barking cough echoed over the baby monitor at 5:00 am. My eyes hadn't even opened and in a hoarse morning voice I asked my husband, "You heard that too, right?" Maybe it wasn't as bad as I thought. But he agreed, and I groaned, knowing what my day—already planned to the hour—would now look like.

My husband is a teacher with a hefty commute and not always a lot of flexibility, so things like sick kids, vet appointments and oil changes usually fall to me. While I'm thankful for a job that essentially allows me to work anywhere—like car dealership waiting areas, my kitchen table or even waiting in line at the grocery store (thanks, email app!)—I still flinch at any disruption from my usual schedule.

I knew the barking baby seal probably meant Croup and because my older kiddo had also been battling a nasty cough and cold, I made plans to take both kids to the doctor. Four hours of meetings scheduled? No problem. I'd make the kids appointments, change my in-person meetings to conference calls, get the kids comfortable with some PBS and pillows and get on with my day working from home.

Two doctors appointments, a breathing treatment (due to unforeseen wheezing) and a trip to the pharmacy later, the girls and I were back home. I had 10 minutes to spare before a call with my manager. Barely breaking a sweat, I thought. Oh, the smug confidence.

I texted a quick update to my mom who'd asked how the girls were. Exasperated, my 3-year-old began pacing in circles in the kitchen. She might have been sick, but somehow her energy never faltered. She gestured with frustration— her palms up and little fingers spread wide, "It's not time for texting, Mommy. It's time for lunch!"

Some people have the type of kids who get colds and melt into the couch for days. They sleep more than usual, they're quieter and they are more than happy to zone out to a movie. I do not have such children.

But she was right. I apologized and sloppily slathered some peanut butter and honey on stale bread ends. Then added bread to the running grocery list.

Five minutes to spare.

As I served up a gourmet lunch, of PB&H and a juice box, I fumbled around to find the conference code when I heard the splat of baby barf hitting the floor (it's possible there is no worse sound.)

"Mommy! Ew! She barfed!"

I made a mental note to talk to the toddler about using the word, 'barf.'

My confident attitude about taking the day head on was now in a swift downward spiral. Sure, I could still join my meeting. I could half listen on mute and soothe the coughing baby with some gentle hip bouncing. But I'd likely have to answer a question and unmute myself, no doubt as the baby started crying again or the dog barked at a UPS truck.

I could make it happen and later face my oldest asking why I'm always on the phone or always texting and never playing. Basically, I could make it work, but not work well.

So, here's what I did.

I sent one final text to my manager that said, "Thought I could make today work but can't. Two sick kids. Need to reschedule."

I then breathed a huge sigh of relief for making one decision and not trying to squeeze in 50 things. I was able to refocus my attention to the little people who actually needed me. My manager sympathetically—and genuinely—responded, "Mom job comes first."

Because let's face it—my 3-year-old doesn't care that my inbox is full and my calendar is back-to-back. All she knows is this: When I'm home she wants to play.

And just because I can work anywhere, doesn't mean I should. I have to learn to stop "making it work." Some days it just doesn't work. I need the reminder to put the phone down. Close the laptop. Focus on what's in front of me. Find a way to shut off the part of my brain that's yelling and anxious about everything I need to do.

Sometimes I need to just s l o w d o w n.

My career isn't going to come to a screeching halt because I spent a few hours or even a few days with sick kids. But I'd like to think my kids will remember the times I spent snuggling and relaxing with them when they were sick. I'd rather they hold on to those memories than ones of me texting and scheduling and over-scheduling and trying to make ALL of it work.

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Motherhood is likely to be the most demanding gig you'll ever have, which is why having the right tools for the job is essential. Of course, even first-time mamas know they'll need a place to sleep, feed and change their newborn—but, there some key ways to set up the baby's room that will make each of those activities less stressful.

Here they are:

1. Re-think lighting

Youthful Nest

An average room has a single ceiling light centered in the middle of the room. Since that isn't where you'll place a changing table to change diapers, rethink how to shed some light on this and other essential caregiver tasks.

First, install a dimmer on the main overhead lighting so you can control the brightness for stealthy middle-of-the-night responsibilities, like feedings and diaper changes. You don't want be attempting these to-dos fumbling around in the darkness nor under bright lights that completely waken you and baby to the point that makes going back to sleep impossible.

Then, add in strategic task lighting. Key spots are near the changing table and next to the glider. If possible, even near the crib. This can be done with floor or table task lamps, preferably with adjustable brightness control, battery-powered motion sensor lights or baby nightlights.

2. Make one space to do multiple tasks

Youthful Nest

Motherhood brings a whole new meaning to the term multitasking. You might be nursing, snacking and emailing all at the same time. Even if you are handling one task at a time, you'll want to have the proper workstation to do your thing.

Wherever you place your glider, be sure to have a decent surface space within arm's reach where you can access items without having to get up from that comfy spot or move baby.

Think about setting up your glider area like you might a work desk. Have baby and mom necessities just a swivel away, including your feeding supplies, books, throws, drink cups, cell phone charger set on a side table or shelf system.

This same principle goes for the changing table area. For safety reasons, you don't want to leave your baby unattended so make sure you can grab the essentials with one hand. (Especially for those moments when the other hand is covered in poo. 💩)

Ensure the changing table area can hold the essential wipes and diapers and a couple sets of clean clothing, rash cream, nasal aspirator, nail clippers, boogie wipes and any other must-have baby toiletries.

3. Create comfort + support for you, mama

Youthful Nest

You deserve to put your feet up, mama. That means you'll want to include a pouf, ottoman or other type of footrest in your nursery. Using one will allow you to elevate your feet during feedings, naps and everything in between.

Your body will go through enough physical wear and tear during pregnancy and postpartum so help your body by using a footrest to improve blood circulation in your legs. Since you'll be sitting for extended periods of time in the glider, putting your feet up will keep those unwanted varicose veins away and could even prevent blood clots.

Like a pouf, a décor pillow isn't just good to bring into the nursery because it looks super stylish. It will actually work hard to support your back during all those feedings and occasional naps you accidentally take in the glider.

Pick one you love the look of, but also be sure that it is big enough and comfortable to lean back on evenly. Longer lumbar pillows are great because they fit nicely in the glider, giving you optimal support.

I would also suggest having a second décor pillow, one that you can tuck under your arm to get the height just right especially while feeding or reading. Too often gliders' armrests are not quite at the perfect height for everyone so a smaller throw pillow can be just enough support.

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It's on the walls of OB-GYN offices and maternity wards, and on the lips of friends, family and sometimes even strangers in the formula aisle. At times it's all a new mama can hear, even when she's sitting in silence with her thoughts.

When it comes to infant feeding, there is no phrase mothers hear more often than "breast is best" but new research, experts and moms who've lived a different truth say that while this message is amplified with the best intentions, new mamas need a lot more than those three words.

A recently published study, "The best of intentions: Prenatal breastfeeding intentions and infant health," suggests that there is a high societal cost to simplifying the the cultural conversation around infant feeding into a three-word slogan.

The study found that moms who intended to exclusively breastfeed but ended up using formula had children with health outcomes similar to exclusively breastfed infants. They also, in many cases, have a lot of undue guilt.

A mom's perspective

When Nicole Rivet-Barton welcomed her first child nearly four years ago she fully intended to breastfeed, but it was a struggle from the start.

"My expectation for myself was that my body would provide what it needed for my baby and when that didn't happen and I had to accept that and transition [to supplementing with formula] I felt like I was failing somehow," Rivet-Barton tells Motherly.

"I felt like less of a person," she explains, adding that whenever she had to have an encounter with a medical professional that wasn't her regular family doctor, she felt judged. On more than one occasion nurses chided her for bottle feeding, telling her "breast is best" without knowing those words were already never far from her thoughts.

"It wasn't the 'best' that I could give her. She was still hungry. My breast milk didn't have what she needed to grow properly," she says.

With the help of a breastfeeding support group and a lactation consultant, Rivet-Barton was eventually able to shift her mindset from "breast is best" to "you do you" and says she felt lighter for it.

"We went to a lactation consultant to help get my milk up and she basically said to me one day, 'You're going to pick your path and you're going to do what's right for your baby. Don't feel guilty.' And I guess I heard her that day, and I let it go," she recalls.

A lactation consultant who doesn't say "breast is best"

Leigh Anne O'Connor is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant in private practice. She's not the lactation consultant Rivet-Barton turned to, but she certainly shares the same views when it comes to acknowledging that infant feeding can't be boiled down to three-word slogans.

"I've never embraced that phase, 'breast is best' or 'fed is best.' They're both divisive terms. It creates a division in parenting and it creates conflict," she says. In place of catchphrases, O'Connor advocates for a more nuanced, thoughtful conversation on the topic.

She believes we can have individual and cultural discussions that both normalize breastfeeding and encourage parents to get their baby fed in the way that works for them, whether it's through nursing, pumping, using donor milk or formula.

"It's complicated. It's not one size fits all," she says. "Breastfeeding isn't always all or nothing, and there's a place for supplementation."

When "you do you" is best

For Rivet-Barton, supplementing allowed her to keep breastfeeding as much as she could for six months after both of her daughters were born.

She says that by the time her second daughter came along, she felt more confident in her parenting choices, and gave herself a lot more grace when it came to her infant feeding choices.

"I got into my stride and got confident enough to listen to my gut and not other people," she tells Motherly, adding that she wishes medical professionals and society would use more than three words when trying to educate new parents about infant feeding. "Give them options without putting expectations on them," she suggests.

More research and more support needed 

There is a massive body of research suggesting that breastfeeding is great for babies. That's not in dispute at all. But the researchers behind that recently published study suggest that the link just isn't as simple as "breast is best."

"Our results suggest that formula offers similar health benefits for our relatively advantaged sample of infants, once we take prenatal intentions into account," the study's authors note.

The research suggests that moms like Rivet-Barton really have nothing to feel guilty about.

The authors—Kerri M. Raissian, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Policy at the University of Connecticut and Jessica Su, an assistant professor in University at Buffalo Department of Sociology—explain that it's not actually the intention to breastfeed that makes the health difference, but rather the fact that mothers who intended to breastfeed often have a certain kind of privilege: They're the mothers who have more access to medical care and therefore more access to information about infant health.

Raissian and Su suggest that instead of amplifying the phrase "breast is best" and potentially overstating the benefits of breastfeeding, society would do better to give mothers the support they need during pregnancy and beyond.

This means making sure that everyone has access to perinatal care, and the kind of parental leave that makes it possible to breastfeed in the first place.

"The U.S. is the only developed country with no federal paid parental leave, and only about 12 percent of mothers in the private sector have access to paid leave," Su explains. "Paid maternity leave likely increases breastfeeding success, and also seems to have additional health benefits for mothers and infants. If we have concerns about disparities in infant health we need social policies that support these recommendations and also go beyond simply encouraging breastfeeding over formula."

Breastfeeding is great, but maybe "support for mothers" would be a better three-word slogan.

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I sometimes wonder how many times in a day small children hear "good job." It is so ingrained in the way we talk to kids, but in the Montessori classroom, you will not hear that phrase.

This is not to say that we don't offer positive reinforcement and encouragement, but our language is different. Montessori teachers try to use phrases of encouragement that protect the child's intrinsic motivation, and that focus on the child's process rather than the end product of his efforts.

"Good job" implies that we are the ones who judge our children's work and behavior, rather than empowering them to reflect upon their own efforts.

There are many ways to offer positive reinforcement that help your child evaluate themself. Here are 10 to try!

1. “You worked for a long time on that.”

When your child brings you a picture or shows you an elaborate block creation, try focusing your comments on their process, rather than the final product.

Let them know you saw how long it took them to make the creation and how hard they worked. This emphasizes to the child that creative process, concentration and their willingness to try new things are what matters, not how their final work looks.

2. “What was the most fun part of making that?”

Asking your child questions about their work shows them that they are the one who should be judging what they create, not you. It keeps their process from becoming adult-driven. The goal is for them to make and create things for the joy of it and to challenge themself, not to please you, or anyone else for that matter.

3. “What do you like best about your work?”

Prompt your child to be their own critic. Ask what they like best about their creation. Help them build the habit of reflecting on their own progress and skills, rather than always looking to others for praise.

4. “Tell me about your picture.”

Often when children bring us a piece of art they've made, they just want to share it with us and talk about it. They don't necessarily need or crave any real feedback from us. Simply asking your child to tell you about what they've made will show you're interested and give them a chance to tell you about what they've been working on.

5. “How did you choose what colors to use?”

If your child is a bit older, ask more specific questions about their process. Ask how they decided what colors to use in their picture, or what type of blocks they used for their structure. Show that you're genuinely interested in their process, and help them think through it on their own.

6. “You used so much detail!”

If your child isn't satisfied without some sort of feedback from you, find something specific to praise, rather than a general "good job." Comment on how they painted the whole page, covering every inch in color. Notice how they used so much detail that you really can tell it's your house they painted.

This type of comment lets them know you really see what they've done and helps them appreciate their own work in a deeper way.

7. “That was so helpful.”

Good behavior is another time when it's so tempting, even automatic, to say "good job." Try saying something more meaningful and commenting on what exactly you liked about your child's behavior.

"That was so helpful," or, "Thank you for helping" are good phrases to use when your child cleans up, opens the door for you, or helps you with household tasks like folding laundry or putting away dishes.

Children love to be part of the community and to feel like they are helping in a real way, so let them know!

8. “You got dressed right away today and we had extra play time, that was fun!”

Commenting on the positive results of your child's good behavior can be a powerful way to cement in their minds what a positive experience it was to make good choices. Help your child notice all of the positive effects of their actions.

9. “Your sister looked so happy when you read her that book.”

When your child is kind to someone, help them notice how it makes the other person feel. Let them know that their hug or kind words made your day. Tell them how happy their friend looked when they gave him a turn with his bike or how proud their little sister looked when they showed her how to water the plants all by herself.

We often comment on how our children's negative behavior makes people feel, but it's just as important to help them notice how their positive actions impact others.

10. “You put all of your toys away, everything looks so nice and neat.”

Comment on the specific thing your child did that you appreciated, and how it was helpful. This is a much more meaningful way to show your appreciation for your child's efforts than a blanket "good job."

There are so many meaningful, sincere ways to show our children that we appreciate what they do. The hardest part of branching out beyond "good job" is breaking the habit.

We are simply used to telling children "good job" for every little thing they do. While this is certainly meant to be kind and supportive, it can, in reality, take away from their sense of accomplishment and over time, can encourage them to seek out adult approval.

Try noticing when you say "good job" and start thinking about something more specific, or less adult-driven, you could have said instead. With practice, you will form new habits and ways of encouraging your child. It will feel more and more natural each time you try it.

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