When rewards systems don’t work….what next?

WARNING: Reader Discretion Advisory. I am not a professional psychologist, psychiatrist or a parenting professional. The following information is based on personal reading, experience and general knowledge from my own studies. Take my advice or leave it, but I hope you enjoy the read!

There is a huge trend in both schools and homes for rewarding children for their good behaviour. We use reward charts, gold stars, praise and treats. Now as a parent of a child who never responded in a ‘normal’ way to anything, including reward charts, I have done a fair bit of thinking about and reading about reward systems. Super Nanny would have us believe that behaviour modification is the way to go, and “naughty spots” and reward charts are the way to get there. I disagree completely.

Naturally, I have posted before about the importance of praising our children and building their self esteem through positive reinforcement when they are behaving the way we want them to. I still believe this is vitally important, I do think though that the reward system for children has got out of hand completely.

It starts young. Most of us modern day parents who have done a fair amount of reading of the ‘right’ kind of parenting volumes before we bring offspring into the world, begin our first foray into the reward system with toilet training as early as 2 years old, or even younger. Let me spell it out. We give children a sticker on a chart every time they successfully make a bladder or bowel movement in the potty or toilet. If they do it enough times to reach the end of their chart, we then reward them with some kind of food or material treat.

Now on the surface, this is fine… I guess. Most kids learn pretty quick to go to the toilet and then the reward chart is put away and you don’t need to continue with the reward. What happens if you have a non typical child who processes information differently? Well, in my experience, my son would hold his wees and poos, then do ten of them in a row with breaks between each one, ensuring that he came out to show us that he had done one. He would get his 10 stickers in a row, get his reward, and then not bother going in the toilet again, but demand a nappy. This happened a couple of times before we finally realised what he was up to, and stopped the reward chart.

Over the years, as it became apparent that his behaviours were going to be a problem, we tried implementing rewards again (yes, we are stupid, but we were urged to do it by many a professional!). Again, we saw the pattern of approved behaviours in rapid succession and then once the reward was gained, the behaviour would go back to what it was before. Then we began noticing that we had to spend more and more time working out a reward that he would actually be motivated to ‘perform’ for. These rewards became increasingly more complex and expensive as he worked out that he could show disinterest in every day foods or toys, or people’s play time. In short, he started manipulating the reward system to suit him or what he wanted, but the behaviours never changed long term. It was exhausting.

All of this got me thinking about what a reward system actually teaches a child.

Firstly, it teaches them, that nothing is worth doing unless you get something material or financial at the end of it.

Secondly, it teaches them that if you don’t like the reward on offer, simply behave badly again until your parents work out what you really want and then behave well long enough to get that thing. Rinse, and repeat.

Thirdly, it teaches them that behaving is something you only need bother doing if something good is on offer, and that your good behaviour is only worth whatever your parents can afford to reward you with.

In short, no self esteem lessons are taught. No self motivating behaviours are learnt. No internal joy at success is experienced.

Of course, when you have ‘normal’ kids, you probably don’t set up a reward system for everything they do. There will be enough good behaviours from them to teach them all the above stuff without the need for material reward. The real problems (in my opinion) occur when you have children with behavioural difficulties. These kids have a lot of structural frameworks around their behaviours, and not so much support for the emotions or thoughts behind those behaviours. Sometimes they can’t help the behaviours, and therefore never achieve the rewards, causing their self esteem to plummet as they realise that they simply can’t make it to the end of that chart. Or they just can’t get what they need to help them truly stop the behaviours. Imagine being 5 or 6 years old and already feeling that way about yourself? Sad isn’t it.

So what can you do instead I hear you ask. I will tell you what we did and maybe it could help you too.

We dropped all material or food rewards completely. It’s not as simple as it sounds. You can’t take away a scaffold for behaviours and not replace it with some seriously strong steel support beams. Our new supports became patience, love and a hefty dose of emotion coaching.

As my son’s behaviours escalated out of control on school days, we used to tell him that if he didn’t hurt anyone that day at school, he would earn a little treat when he got home. Sadly, this just encouraged him to lie about what had happened at school. Of course we would find out from communication with the school what had really happened, and the whole reward system would just be a sham. So one day, after I had trained up a fair bit on emotion coaching and Circle of Security Parenting techniques, I informed him that we were taking away all reward systems. You should have seen the ensuing tantrum! Whew! It was a big ‘un. Of course he was upset. That was his only way of knowing whether he had finally done something right.

I spent 30 minutes on the footpath outside school holding his raging little body still as he bemoaned the unfairness of the fact that he had a really good day at school and didn’t hit anyone and didn’t run away and didn’t do anything naughty, but he wasn’t allowed to have a new toy. How could I do this to him! I just held him and agreed that he was mad, and sad, and disappointed and that right now it felt like everything sucked. He calmed down, we went home, he didn’t get any treats. What he did get was a lot of my time that afternoon, supporting his loss and grief for the now dead reward system.  We followed a similar routine for about 2 or 3 months as he started to realise that I was serious and wasn’t going to give in. I gave him nothing but my smiles and verbal praises when he did something good. We didn’t take him to the shops much, because there would inevitably be a huge tantrum if he behaved himself all the way through the grocery store and then didn’t get some little sweetie or lollie or toy at the end of the trip.

Like I said, it was full on for 2-3 months. I repeatedly, and patiently explained that there would be no more toys until his birthday or Christmas, or unless he did his jobs to earn his money and save up. I explained again and again in a kind and patient way, that it was really important for him to understand that he could feel proud of himself when he behaved nicely in the shops and his Mummy told him she was proud of his behaviour and gave him a big hug. I told him the psychological benefit of wanting to behave in a way that made people want him around and also to get a task done and have no other reward than feeling glad that he did it. He thought I was mean and sucked for quite a while. His behaviour even regressed for a while because after all, as he said many times,

“What is the use of doing this if I don’t even get something for it?!”

‘exactly!’ I thought.

After this really tough period, I started doing little things like just saying all of a sudden.

Me:”Hey! Lets go and get a sweetie at the shops today!”

Him: “Why?” – suspicious

Me: “Just because I feel like getting you a sweetie because I love you.”

We would have the treat, and enjoy it together. I then started throwing in the odd little toy every now and then when he’d done something really lovely even if he’d done a few naughty things that week. The important thing was that I never tied the treat to a specific behaviour or event, it was just a little treat because I felt like giving him something nice because he was my son and I loved him.

First we started to notice that he could walk through a shop without asking for things in every aisle as we moved along.

Second we started to notice that if he did ask for something and the answer was ‘no’ he would just sigh and accept it and move on.

Next thing we noticed, and this was a really big one. He started smiling when he had completed something on his own. He would just do the task, smile and accept the hug, the praise on a job well done, and then once or twice he even told us how he had even enjoyed doing the task. Cleaning up his toys was always a hugely contentious thing in our house. It still is sometimes, but nothing like the fight it used to be. Now when we ask him to do it, he knows that he has to do it for no other reason than it’s the right thing to do.

The place we’ve seen the most improvement of course is in his attitude to school work. Now that I’ve been able to homeschool him and he’s away from all those reward charts at school, I am starting to get him to feel what it’s like to be proud of himself for giving something a go without getting any particular ‘thing’ at the end. He still hates doing the work because his anxiety is always still there when it comes to school work. Now however, when he finishes a task, he looks at me and smiles and can actually say with a happy face,

“I did it!”

And I can look back and hug him and say.

“Yes you did. You must be so proud.”

And he is 🙂



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6 Responses to When rewards systems don’t work….what next?

  1. Anya says:

    Lovely! Well done with the perseverance!

  2. Lisa says:

    Hi KL
    Thank you so very much for posting this. We are struggling something awful with my 8-year old son right now. He is adopted and was a fetal alcohol baby, so we have a lot of issues. Behavior is horrendous right now. The “experts” keep telling me to continue sticker charts and reward. School now even instituted a food reward system which I think is terrible. I agree it teaches kids “what’s in it for me.” I am now going to do what I feel is best and follow your example of no rewards, just praise and patience (if I can, ugh, patience is hard these days).
    Thank you again.

    • KL says:

      Hi Lisa,

      I replied to your comment using WordPress on my phone, but it doesn’t seem to be showing up in my account on my PC. Strange. I’m therefore sorry if you get this reply twice now!

      You can’t begin to know how much it meant to receive your comment. To know that all my hard work with my son and then writing about it has helped someone else to stick to their own feelings on helping their child is all I can ask for. It sounds like you have a long hard road ahead with your son, but it also sounds like you are on the right track. Schools are tricky things. Specialists and counsellors even trickier I find! Just remember that you are his hero in life, and no one is going to fight for him like you will. His behaviours obviously happen for a reason and you are completely right with your gut feeling that the rewards need to be scrapped and he needs to start having his self worth built by you. It’s hard work, and trust me I know that it’s hard to be patient! I still have to practice being patient! I actually train in it as if I’m training for a marathon! If I worked my abs and thighs as hard as I work my patience, I’d be a supermodel by now! 🙂 Good on you and keep it up. Thanks for reading!

  3. monique says:

    I have a 6 year old daughter and a three year old daughter. I have always done reward charts for my 6 year old starting at two for her very bad behavior. I felt like nothing else worked. She gets a smiling face for doing her jobs and if she does something inappropriate one comes off again. She needs twenty to get a craft price or something she needs shoes etc which we seat and do together. She does her jobs and nice things things for her sister to help out because she knows it makes me happy with out expecting a sticker on her chart. I believe the chart has helped her.but now shes wonting money for doing jobs, so whats the difference between giving money for jobs or a smiling sticker??? But nothing seems to help with my three year old. NOTHING she is soooooo naughty. We dont know what else to do other then praise her for good behavior with hugs and kisses and explain why it makes me sad when she does something naughty. We r doing speech therapy for our 3 year old atm and the teacher spends most of her time trying to hold my daughters attention for longer then 5 mins ahhh driving us nuts

    • KL says:

      Hi Monique,

      I’m glad rewards worked for your 6 year old. There are a large number of kids who work well with reward charts and with your other good parenting skills they don’t end up thinking everything has to be done for rewards. As you are discovering with your three year old, there are some kids who have their brains working in a slightly different way and the usual tactics just don’t work for them! It makes it tricky for parents of these kids, because there aren’t very many resources out there to help you find a different way for those children. Keep researching and trying different things with your three year old. You’ll get there!

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