The problem with stickers, tokens and reward charts
Behaviour management strategies like stickers, tokens, prizes and reward charts are widely used by parents around the world. And at first glance, these strategies make sense. After all, children love stickers, and they enjoy collecting tiny treasures and trinkets. And if you’re attempting to parent without punishments or harsh consequences like time outs, spanking, yelling or threats, then rewards seem like an effective and harmless way to motivate children.
After all, most of us agree that traditional, punitive strategies damage our relationship with our children. We agree that punishments are manipulative, fear based strategies that are focused on compliance and control. But what about rewards?
Some of you may be thinking that rewards are encouraging and positive. That it’s great to notice when kids are doing the right thing and offer them things like praise or extra privileges. Perhaps you view rewards as the complete opposite of punishments.
But I urge you to think about WHY children receive rewards. We give kids rewards because we want them to do things we believe they wouldn’t freely choose to do. Which means we are still trying to manipulate behaviour in some way when we use rewards. We are trying to get our kids to behave a certain way or do something WE believe they should do.
So actually, rewards and punishments are not opposites at all. They are in fact, two sides of the same coin. They both arise from the same basic principal – that we can motivate kids by manipulating their behaviour – by either giving them something or taking something away in exchange for them completing a task.
But does this really WORK?
Do rewards work?
Well, that depends on your definition of ‘work’. To consider whether rewards work we need to think about WHY we are using them. And our intentions are mostly good when we use rewards. We are aiming to raise kind, hard working, responsible, compassionate members of society. We want to raise good people.
So we use rewards to change behaviour and to encourage more pro-social behaviour – we reward kids when they use a potty, share their toys, are kind to others, or make their bed. And we use rewards to improve performance in the hope we can instil values like hard work, persistence, and responsibility – we reward kids for things like getting good grades in school, completing their homework on time or practicing the piano.
But are those rewards actually changing behaviour or improving performance?
Do rewards change behaviour?
Well, yes. In the short term, rewards are effective. If you offer your child a chocolate bar in exchange for cleaning their room, they’ll more than likely clean it. But here’s the problem: what happens if you stop giving him chocolate? Rewards are only effective for as long as you are giving them out. And yes, it is possible to continue handing out rewards forever. But it’s really not practical. And we run into trouble when our kids get older and the rewards they expect become larger or more expensive. Plus, do you really want your child to only help out around the house only when there’s something in it for him?
Do rewards improve performance?
The short answer to this question, is no. Research tells us that people do not do better work when they know they are going to be rewarded. In fact, quite the opposite – people who are offered rewards to complete tasks perform more poorly on those tasks. Especially when we reward people for completing tasks or doing work that is interesting to them, that they already enjoy, or that they find challenging or stimulating.
Why we should ditch reward charts
Ultimately it comes down to this: reward charts and other behaviour management strategies are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what behaviour really is. When we use strategies like reward charts, we are making an assumption that a child CAN behave differently but is choosing not to.
But we know that behaviour is not just a simple choice. Humans are complex. And behaviour is a symptom – a reflection of a child’s internal state of arousal and an indication of how well they are managing stress. We often see what we commonly think of as misbehaviour in children who are feeling stressed, disconnected, or lacking skills to complete a task. For these children, their behaviour is not a choice at all. It is stress behaviour that is driven by their need for safety and security. (For more about this, check out THIS blog post).
When we reduce children to nothing more than a series of behaviours that can be manipulated and managed, we are completely ignoring the very essence of what it means to be human. We are disregarding decades of research into brain science and relational neuroscience.
But perhaps even more troubling, is that we are also ignoring the fact that children are whole human beings with minds and wills and moods of their own. To assume that children will only complete a task if there is something in it for them, is demeaning and disrespectful. And we are doing children a great disservice when we assume that the only way for them to be “good” is to manipulate them into it.
5 reasons reward charts backfire
1. Rewards punish kids who are struggling to meet our expectations
Again, reward charts assume that the only reason a child isn’t performing a behaviour is because they choose not to. But what about the child who tries really hard to earn a reward and still falls short? The child who simply cannot meet the expectation? Perhaps because he simply hasn’t learned the skills to do it yet. Perhaps because he didn’t sleep well, or he skipped breakfast this morning. Perhaps because he is experiencing bullying or violence and is feeling anxious? Perhaps because he’s neuro-divergent and simply cannot do what you are asking.
Reward charts leave kids behind. For kids who are unable to earn the rewards, they feel like a punishment. They create more stress and more disconnection. And they only make it less likely that children will behave the way we expect them to. If kids try hard but still cant get it right, they’ll likely feel defeated and demoralised and will give up. So for those kids, reward charts really are a punishment.
2. Rewards damage relationships
Rewards are based upon evaluation. We cannot provide a reward without first making a judgment about whether a child deserves it. Did they meet the goal? Did they do good work? Did they do the “right” thing? And if a child believes that a parent or teacher is judging their behaviour as good or bad and then that adult is also in control of whether good or bad things happen to that child as a result of that evaluation, the relationship is going to be impacted.
Reward charts both create and reinforce an imbalance of power within a relationship. If children are under constant threat of evaluation, they cannot feel safe with us and we cannot work collaboratively with them. This means they may become afraid to admit mistakes. They may be afraid to come to us with problems. And they will often become focused on trying to earn the reward so they can gain our approval. To a child, rewards can feel like conditional love and acceptance. They damage the relationship we are trying to build with our kids.
3. Rewards don’t address the underlying reasons for behaviour
Rewards do not look at why the behaviour happened in the first place. They don’t go beneath the surface. How can we find a solution to a problem, without first understanding what the problem is? When we use rewards, we are seeking to solve the problem without finding out why the problem happened. Rewards are short cuts. Quick fixes. They dont get to the root of the problem, which is why they don’t result in lasting change. Remember, behaviour is not the problem – it’s a symptom of a problem. We need to find out what the problem is, instead of just trying to fix the symptoms.
4. Rewards discourage risk taking and impede learning
When we work towards a reward, we are likely to do exactly what is expected of us to earn that reward – and nothing more. When there is a reward to be earned at the end of a task, our goal becomes to complete the task as quickly as possible to earn the reward. Which means we are less likely to explore, and be curious, get creative, and take chances that might not pay off. We won’t take any risks that might lead to us not earning the reward. We will stick with what we know works and are less likely to be flexible and innovative in the way we solve problems.
In addition to this, when we are completing a task to get a reward, our goal is not in fact, to complete the task. It’s to get the reward. The focus becomes the reward itself and the task becomes simply something that gets in the way of us getting the reward. Which means that rewards actively interfere with learning. People who want rewards will choose the fastest, easiest way they can to earn it. And no learning is happening along the way.
5. Rewards damage intrinsic motivation
Rewards and punishments are extrinsic motivators – motivators outside of the task itself. Intrinsic motivation is about enjoyment of an activity that comes from doing the activity itself. And research has told us, time and again, that no artificial or imposed reward or incentive can match the power of intrinsic motivation. In fact, rewards damage intrinsic motivation: when we reward people for completing tasks, they have less interest in the task.
The first reason for this, is that when we introduce a reward the message we send is that this activity is not much fun. We tell kids, this activity is so unappealing that I need to offer you an incentive to get you to do it. In fact, research tells us that not only does offering a reward lead to a decline in interest, once we remove the reward, interest in the task is even lower than it was before we offered the reward. So for example, if we reward a reluctant reader for finishing a book, they might do it. But once they receive their reward, they will be even less likely to read than they were before. They might also be less likely to try other activities unless there is something in it for them. So we actually create a dependence upon extrinsic motivators.
The second reason intrinsic motivation declines, is that rewards are generally experienced as controlling, and humans have a natural tendency to avoid situations where we feel we have little autonomy. That is, we are less interested in doing things when we feel we are being controlled or forced to do it. So when we threaten, order, pressure or coerce in any way, intrinsic motivation declines.
Do we want compliance or cooperation?
Ultimately it comes down to this: do you want to raise compliant children, or good people? When we use reward charts and other behaviour management strategies the result is short term compliance. We generally get children who obey us and do as we ask. But we also get children who struggle with intrinsic motivation, who rely on external motivators to get things done, and who are often dependant upon external validation and praise from others to feel good about themselves.
If we want to raise good people, who are motivated to do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing – then we need to ditch compliance based behaviour management strategies like reward charts and incentives and instead focus on cooperation. When we do this, we teach children that the needs of both people in a relationship are important and that we can work together to meet them – without controlling, coercing or manipulating anyone else.
Need more support?
Do you want to learn more about HOW to transition away from behaviour management strategies? We have a whole stage devoted to mindful discipline and parenting without punishments and rewards inside of The Mindful Little Mama. This is our monthly parenting membership for mamas who want to learn how to regulate their own emotions, so they can yell less, create deeply connected relationships with their kids and build a home their children always want to return to – even if they never had this themselves as a child.
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.