Kids behave according to the pleasure principle: behavior that is rewarding continues; behavior that is unrewarding ceases.
While you don't have to go to the extreme of playing behavioral scientist, you can invent creative ways to motivate desirable behavior with rewards.
To work, a reward must be something your youngster likes and truly desires. Ask some leading questions to get ideas:
- "If you had ten dollars, what would you buy?"
- "If you could go somewhere with a friend, where would you like to go?
- "If you could do some special things with your parents, what would they be?"
Granting a reward is a discipline tool to (a) set limits and (b) get jobs done. The best reward is one that is a natural consequence of good behavior: "You're taking really good care of your bicycle …let's go to the bike shop and get you a battery-operated headlight." The natural consequences of good behavior are not always motivating enough in themselves. Sometimes it's necessary to fabricate a reward.
Reward charts are a helpful way to motivate young kids. They see their progress and participate in the daily steps toward the reward. The reward chart stands out as a testimony of good behavior for all to see. Reward charts work because they are interactive and fun. Even the business world uses performance charts as profit motivators. Throughout life, many kids will be surrounded by performance charts, so they may as well get used to seeing them in their home.
In making reward charts, consider these tips:
• Charts can contain positive and negative entries, reminders of both types of behaviors. For example, you can use daily charts to correct poor eating habits. The youngster puts a happy face sticker on the chart every morning he drinks all his orange juice and a sad face sticker on the chart on mornings he doesn’t. If the happy faces outnumber the sad faces at the end of the week, the youngster gets to choose where he wants to go for lunch Saturday afternoon.
• Construct the chart so that the youngster has a visual image of closing in on the reward. You may get the best results from a "connect the dots" chart. Have the youngster draw a picture of what he wants. Then outline the periphery of the picture with dots several inches apart. With each day of successful behavior (e.g., each time he remembers to feed the dog) the youngster connects another dot. When all the dots are connected, the youngster collects the prize.
• Display the chart in a high visibility location (e.g., on the refrigerator). Giving the chart a high profile and high visibility gives the youngster easy access, serves as a frequent reminder of the desired behavior, and lets him proudly exhibit his progress.
• Keep the time until the prize is collected short. Frequent, simple rewards keep motivation high. For ages 2 - 3, use end-of-the-hour rewards. For ages 4 - 5, use end-of-the-day rewards. For ages 6 – 12, use end-of-the- week rewards. A month is an unreachable eternity for any youngster.
• Remember that novelty wears off quickly for kids. So change charts frequently.
• Make the chart interactive: connecting dots, pasting on stickers, drawing different colored stars, etc. (just something more interesting than a check mark).
• Work with your youngster. Let your youngster help construct the chart and make daily entries.
Besides charts, design your own clever motivators:
• Ask the youngster to do a task. Set a timer. If the task is done before the timer rings, your youngster gets a reward. To decide the amount of time to give the youngster, figure out your youngster's "best time" to do that task and add 5 minutes.
• Ask your youngster to play quietly alone or with a sibling for a short time (maybe 30 minutes). Check on your youngster frequently (every 2 to 5 minutes, depending on the youngster's age) and give a reward or a token for each few minutes they were quiet or playing well. Gradually increase the intervals (go from checking your youngster's behavior every 2 to 5 minutes to checking every 30 minutes), but continue to give rewards for each time period your youngster was quiet or played well.
• Because his 7-year-old's toy of the month was a train, a father chose a new railroad car as a weekly reward for the youngster keeping his room picked-up. And he related the reward to the behavior: "When you show me you can keep your room picked-up, then we'll add a new car to your train set." He used periodic reminders: "Let's keep your room as sharp as your train set.”
• In a short time (about an hour) put a mark on a chart or on your youngster's hand each time you see her performing a good behavior. For example, if you see your youngster playing quietly, solving a problem without fighting, picking up toys or reading a book, you would mark the chart. After a certain number of marks, give your youngster a reward. You can also make negative marks each time a bad behavior occurs. If you do this, only give your youngster a reward if there are more positive marks than negative marks.
• To keep fighting between siblings to a minimum, you can use a "good behavior candle." The object is to burn the candle all the way down so that both children can get a reward. As soon as they get home from school, you can light the candle. The candle stays lit until a fight or argument occurs. The child who initiated the argument has to blow out the candle. The sooner the candle burns down (e.g., the fewer arguments), the sooner the children get a reward. Since kids don't like to delay gratification, they're more motivated to avoid arguing with one another.
• Write a short list of good behaviors on a chart and mark the chart with a star each time you see the good behavior. After your youngster has earned a small number of stars (depending on the youngster's age), give her a reward.
The Cons of Using Rewards—
Some child development experts describe “rewards” for good behavior as “bribes.” These experts do not believe parents should offer rewards when a child behaves well. Small rewards, such as stickers, can be helpful in teaching young children to complete tasks. These however, can cause dependence on outside motivators rather than learning internal motivation and developing a sense of pride for “a job well done.”
Rewards may narrow goals for children and may take away opportunities for children to choose to do something because it is “the right thing to do.” Although rewards have been compared to adults receiving a paycheck, adults work for more than just a paycheck. Adults feel satisfaction for a job well done; they work for knowledge and for personal growth. When children receive rewards for a job well done, they are taught to work just for a paycheck.
In any event, rewards are a way to entice your children toward goals you've made for them. The ultimate goal is self-discipline (i.e., they behave well because they want to, or because they know you expect good behavior). They shouldn't expect a prize each time they behave well.
Be as creative as you like with your reward system. Spell out the types of behavior and chores that will be rewarded. Consistency is the key here. As your children grow up and House Rules evolve, so can the rewards.
Here a partial list of rewards that may be used in a “reward system”:
- Going for a picnic
- Going horse-back riding
- Going on a trip to the zoo
- Going out for hamburgers or pizza
- Going outside at night
- Going roller skating
- Going someplace alone with dad or mom
- Going to a beach
- Going to a movie
- Going to the park or playground
- Having a special desert like ice cream
- Playing a game with parent(s)
- Playing an educational computer game
- Playing with friends
- Riding on a bicycle with dad or mom
- Sitting in the front seat
- Spending the night at a friend’s house
- Staying up late (e.g., midnight)
- Watching a video
Note: As with all parenting techniques, using a “reward system” may work well for Jack -- but not so great for Jill.
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