How to use Rewards to Motivate Good Behavior

How to use Rewards to Motivate Good Behavior

We all want to raise kids that are able to manage their own behavior and respond to our instruction…but kids aren't always as compliant as we'd like.  I'll admit that on occasion (when I really want them to behave), I give my kids special treats - it seems to make things go a little easier and they love it.  But sometimes I wonder if it's really helping or hurting them in the long run…it feels like I'm bribing them and I question my own motives.  Am I reacting in the moment just to appease my kids and get them to do what I want…or am I effectively rewarding and teaching them how to manage their own behavior? 

This can be really confusing.

I recently discovered a parenting book called Reset Families that's helped me to gain a better understand of all this.  I've learned that when thoughtful rewards are used in the right way, they can be powerful in motivating kids toward making good behavioral choices.  But haphazardly offering bribes for good behavior is detrimental and usually backfiles, sending kids the wrong message.

Every step-couple would benefit from the concepts in this book, and for the rest of this article, I'm going to share some of what I've learned directly from the book: 

Bribes vs Rewards

First, we need to look at the difference between a bribe and a reward.  Check out each of these descriptions from the Cambridge Dictionary:

A bribe is, "The act of giving someone money or something else of value…to persuade that person to do something you want."  A bribe doesn't have to be earned - it's an easy way to temporarily control someone's behavior. 

In contrast, a reward is defined as "Something given in recognition of one's service, effort or achievement."  A reward must be earned - it's an appropriate way to validate good behavior and encourage that same behavior to continue long-term.

Many parents (myself included) will resort to bribery in a moment of stress or frustration, when  feeling overwhelmed.  It's usually when we're faced with embarrassment or pressure - often in public and the child's behavior is creating an uncomfortable scene or maybe we're just too exhausted to do anything else. 

If you haven't personally experienced a grocery store meltdown with your kids, I'm sure you've witnessed other parents reacting to poor behavior by offering a quick bribe:  "If you stop crying you can have that candy bar". 

You know that you've slipped into using bribery when you've offered your child something that you had no previous intention of giving them — it's that spur-of-the-moment decision, made under duress that's used to change the child's behavior on the spot.  And…it puts the child in the driver's seat!

When bribery becomes a pattern it will reinforce poor behavior and ultimately lead to an attitude of entitlement.  Kids won't behave well without getting what they want first and they'll expect to get their 'prize' no matter what.  In other words, they've learned to act out in order to get what they want.

Bribes say:  "If you do___________ , I'll give you_______________"

Rewards say:  "Because you did________________, you'll get________________"

The effective use of rewards is different from bribery because the parent compensates the child for good choices and behavior — after the fact — rather than being manipulated in the moment.

3 Steps to Meaningful Rewards 

1. Communicate Expectations in Advance

Rewards are given in recognition of service or achievement.  They validate the child's efforts and motivate them to meet the expectations you've set for them. 

But to be effective, kids need to clearly understand the expectations in advance:   "Listen kids, we're going to the store to get groceries today not to buy candy and junk food so please don't ask for anything that's not on our list"  (Mike & I still have to do this with our teenagers!)

Attempting to give kids direction in the heat of the moment, (while they're acting out) is stressful and can lead to power struggles.  As a parent, you know when and where your kids will struggle to make good behavioral choices, so prepare for those times in advance by communicating your expectations…every time! 

This helps to keep expectations fresh in kids' minds and it's easier for you to intervene when you sense trouble brewing and need to redirect behavior:  "Honey, I see that you're touching that candy bar, but remember that we're only buying what's on our list today.  Please put the candy back and help me bag the groceries now".

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2. Plan Rewards and Praise Effort 

If you have a goal of training your kids to learn a new skill or develop better behavior, you'll want to start out by presenting the goal alongside the promise of a reward.  "When you choose to behave at the grocery store today, we can plan to serve something yummy for dessert after dinner". 

This may seem like a bribe, but it's very different.  Rather than offering a bribe in the heat of the moment — while kids are acting out — you're letting them know that when they choose to meet your expectation they'll be compensated.  This is a motivational reward that will help to keep kids on track while they're striving to meet the expectation and it gives you control over assigning the reward instead of the kids demanding whatever they want. 

Once you begin to see success with kids meeting expectations, you can transition into simply offering praise that acknowledges their good choices: "I'm really proud that you didn't ask for any candy at the store today.  I appreciate that so much — you're really growing up". 

Heartfelt and specific praise goes a long way in motivating kids to continue making good choices.  You can still offer tangible rewards (such as treats or special outings), but once kids are capable of meeting the expectation, they don't necessarily need to receive rewards every time.      

3. Stay Consistent and Follow Through

We are in the business of helping our kids gain the skills to manage their own behavior, and that takes time as well as our commitment and consistency — even when we're feeling frustrated, tired and impatient.

It's easy to give positive reinforcement when the behavioral expectations are met.  But what about when kids slip up, act out or make poor choices?  This is the time to stay strong!

Rewards are a powerful tool, but they can easily be misused — especially when parents struggle with follow through and consistency.  Kids who are given rewards even when they haven't met the expectation will be inadvertently rewarded for poor behavior.  As a result, the motivation to meet expectations and make efforts to reach goals will be undermined and poor behavior will continue. 

The objective of rewards is to encourage kids to keep working toward worthwhile goals and to make good behavioral choices.  You can do this by acknowledging their progress, even if it isn't perfect. 

However, the original reward promised must be withheld until kids are able to meet the expectation completely.  "I saw that you were trying really hard to make good choices today and you didn't ask to buy your favorite cookies, but tonight we'll be skipping dessert because you kept pestering me about buying that candy bar…I know you'll do better next time".

Rewards work best when you're able to achieve enough consistency that the kids can trust you'll follow through.  That's why it important to keep it as simple as possible — so you're able to follow through without getting overwhelmed. 

There's another element to parenting where follow though is vital and that's when consequences need to be given.  Missing out on the promised reward is a consequence, but if poor behaviors continue you'll need to elevate the training by using appropriate consequences as well.

Get Creative with Rewards

There are lots of ways to reward kids and validate good behaviors and habits.  Reset Families has suggestions for younger kids such as reward cards, point charts, stickers, coupons or money jars. 

Behavioral contracts are effective for older kids who are earning bigger rewards such as driving the family car.  The show 'Super Nanny' provides great examples and ideas on how to administer rewards too.  If you decide to set up a system to help your family track behaviors and earn rewards, here are some helpful tips:

  • Make it visual - it needs to be a reminder that you and the kids see throughout your daily routine (visit for free printable charts to get you started)

  • Make it fun and positive - think about what your child loves most and use that for incentives

  • Make expectations attainable - to start, set kids up for success and don't overwhelm them. As they grow in competence gradually raise the expectations, but keep them realistic and concrete.

  • Don't expect perfection - Focus more on what kids are doing right than wrong.  Notice the positive behaviors and show empathy when kids are struggling. Avoid shaming and demeaning.

  • Be patient and consistent - The steps to your system might be simple, but kids are not.  It takes patience and consistency to train kids to manage their behaviors and build life skills.

It's helpful to think of rewards and consequences in terms of real life realities.  Employees who complete tasks and meet the expectations of their job will earn the tangible reward of a paycheck.  College students that choose to stay out all night with friends instead of studying for exams, will face the consequences of failing exams and getting poor grades.

As parents we need to be preparing our kids for real-life realities by equipping them to meet all the challenges ahead.  Understanding rewards and consequences is vital!

Stepfamily Considerations

For stepfamilies, everything we do around parenting needs to be handled strategically and carefully. 

Things that must be considered include:

  • Positioning parental authority appropriately so that step-relationships can thrive

  • Working as a united team to make decisions around what's most important

  • Setting up a code of conduct that builds connection, order and peace as you move your family forward. 

It may feel overwhelming and it's easy to get frustrated (we get it) that's why we're continuing to create tools to help you every step of the way. 

QUESTION:  What's one bribe you're willing to admit you've offered your kids in the past few weeks? :-0  Leave a comment below…

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