Why rewarding children might be holding them back

Can rewarding kids for positive behaviour actually be doing them more harm than good? Some experts say yes.

Whether it’s withholding dessert until all the veggies are eaten, or offering pocket money for doing household chores, most parents will be familiar with using rewards to motivate desirable behaviour in their kids.

But some experts say not only are these methods not effective, they can be damaging for kids.

The downsides of rewarding kids

Offering rewards for behaviour we approve of can negatively affect children’s self-esteem and stifle their willingness to challenge themselves, says child psychologist and author Dr Louise Porter.

“Children are told when we praise them or give them rewards that they are good people when they do well, which to a young child implies they’re not good people if they don’t do well,” says Dr Porter.

Dr Porter says children who constantly seek rewards or approval can become anxious about failing to live up to our expectations, which can be detrimental to their learning.

“These feelings can impair their engagement and work quality,” she says. “They may choose safe tasks and avoid challenge, or if a reward looks unlikely, stop applying themselves.”

Rewards can also hamper a child’s ability to understand the benefit within a task, says social psychologist and educator Dr Helen Street.

“If I said to my kids ‘if you tidy up the living room I’m going to give you ice-cream’, they might tidy up the living room, but not because they’re doing something for the family or because it needs doing or they want to help out – they’re doing it because they like ice-cream,” says Dr Street.

“I’m taking away the opportunity for them to see it’s worthwhile for them to support the family and work together.”

Rewards can also lead a child to value other people’s opinions of them more than their own.

“If we constantly offer rewards for our kids to do things, what I’m saying is ‘my judgment of you is what counts’,” says Dr Street.

What to do instead of rewarding kids

“If you want them to stay engaged and persist in the face of setbacks, they need to be intrinsically motivated – that is driven by desire to be competent, not the desire to get things right or to be approved of,” says Dr Porter.

To inspire intrinsic motivation, Dr Street says an activity should meet three key human needs: a sense of autonomy, a sense of belonging, and a sense of competency.

So instead of using rewards, consider how you can help them meet their needs so they actually want to complete the task at hand.

For example, if a child doesn’t want to go to school, try to find out why.

“Do they feel a sense of belonging?” says Dr Street. “If you don’t feel safe in terms of your social space in the classroom or a sense of belonging, it’s hard to have capacity to learn.”

Dr Street says giving children a sense of choice over a task can also help.

“Some tasks are more intrinsically motivating than others, but offering a choice as opposed to just telling them to do it can feed their sense of autonomy,” she says.

“You might say ‘I don’t mind if you do the dishes now or after you’ve had a shower.’ As soon as you have options, something becomes more desirable.”

Acknowledge success rather than praise

Dr Porter says adults should acknowledge and celebrate a child’s success, rather than reward or praise.

“Acknowledgement gives children information about their competence, without linking this to their worth as a human being,” she says.

“You don’t say to a colleague who’s just got a promotion, ‘oh good girl’, you say ‘congratulations’.”

How to undo your rewards system

If your family is accustomed to a rewards system, Dr Porter suggests gradually phasing it out and changing your language.

“Rather than saying, ‘you’re a good boy’, say: ‘Congratulations, I bet you’re delighted with that, or what do you like most about it?’”

It may take some time to adjust your approach, but Dr Porter says the difference it can make to a child’s behaviour and how they feel about themselves and their achievements is worth it.

“Children don’t behave well because they have incentives; they behave well because they can,” she says.

Written by Claire Burke