The Surprising Truth About Reward Systems: Why They Don't Work for Kids and What to Do Instead

The Surprising Truth About Reward Systems: Why They Don't Work for Kids and What to Do Instead

We live in a culture which relies on a rewards based system in a huge way. It might start with sticker charts and end with huge business bonuses. And amazingly, research shows that pay does not improve performance even for the corporate fat cats.

Here's why the idea that rewards work is a well-misunderstood myth;

Rewards DON'T motivate

Rewards only have some effectiveness in the short term. This applies whether you're young or old, in school or the workplace. It's often referred to as temporary compliance. And I hear you - temporary compliance, sticker charts and reward charts might sound appealing!

Those little rewards also make us feel like we are giving our children something they want and that makes us good parents. But does it really?

Reinforcing behaviour with rewards teaches one strategy - how to get the reward in the quickest and easiest fashion.

This means the task at hand loses it's intrigue and value. The child is distracted from the learning available in the task. They focus instead on the end point - the reward - a poisoned carrot by any other name.

The great shame about this is that children are natural learners - they are deeply creative and curious. When distracted by the lure of a reward their engagement in learning is undermined.

This also means the child is less able to fulfil their true potential.

The other downside is that children also experience the pressure and fear of not achieving the reward which can make them avoid tasks completely. In time, rewards actually de-motivate participation and can create anxiety.

Children who are undistracted by rewards will challenge themselves to just above their current ability. This is a game-changing piece of information. Without rewards children do better! It’s actually great news that innate motivation (in a reward-free environment) leads to the most meaningful learning.

Rewards DON'T inspire

Sometimes we might judge a task to be onerous, boring or too difficult and this motivates us to offer a reward at the end…but can we be certain the child sees the task in the same light?

Rewards interrupt creativity

By setting up a task as needing extra motivation (rewards) we set up an expectation that so-called dull tasks aren’t worth attempting for their own sake.

Given time and space, children naturally find their own passions and dislikes without us muddying the waters with reward-based interference. Maybe your child actually enjoys washing up!

We are frequently reminded how brilliant children are at living in the moment. Their ability to engage is amazing and they can delight in the mundane in a way few adults can.

With this in mind, there’s always scope to give children the opportunity to attempt something without rewards.

It is this opportunity that makes space for the unexpected, the experiential learning and the sense of achievement.

Rewards DON'T create connection

As parents it's useful to consider what message our behaviours give our children. Rewards communicate the message of 'I don’t trust in your natural curiosity, determination or creativity to engage in the first place'.

Whether the task is challenging or small, by making external rewards the measure of success we deprive the child of genuine self-satisfaction.

By incentivising with rewards we are inadvertently conditioning the child to look outside of themselves for recognition and approval.

If we want lasting changes to attitudes and behaviours however, these happen from the inside-out, not outside-in.

It is possible to create an environment where rewards are not always expected. That’s not to say that spontaneous celebration or treats can’t have their place too. However, a reward-free home communicates trust in our children's creative genius and innate desire to explore, experiment and engage.

Rewards are distractions

The lure of rewards is real, but sometimes the seduction can be in the giving rather than the receiving.

Like all distractions, rewards take everyone’s eyes off the ball when the task at hand is enough in and of itself.

There’s undoubtedly some pleasure for parents in recognising our children with stickers, treats and other goodies.

However, the real joy is watching your child experience satisfaction and success on their own terms, for it’s own sake.

To learn more about rewards and all the biggest parenting hot topics, you can enrol on our accredited online Positive Discipline Course or book a 30 minute or 1 hour Parent Conversation.