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A big chunk of parenting time and energy is spent trying to get children to do some things or stop them from doing others. In the course of trying to get our children to “behave,” most of us have tried a lot of things that don’t work very well.
One popular method for directing children’s behavior is the use of rewards, gold stars, and bribes. These methods are very effective—if your goals are very limited and short-term. Rewards can sometimes buy compliance, but they don’t build character. So, the lure of rewards is much like getting children to eat by offering an all-chocolate diet; the child may be delighted initially but, over time, the child will get sicker and sicker. This is not a good strategy.
Let’s consider an example. Imagine that it is time for you to dash out the door but your little one is resisting getting dressed. Every effort to hurry her results in more resistance. We have all resorted to forcing clothes on the child who cries and flails. This is bad for parents and bad for children. Brute force does not teach maturity, sensitivity, and civility.
Maybe we decide to try something that seems more enlightened. We offer the child a toy or treat to get dressed. If we have ably chosen the reward and the child is not past rationality, a bargain is struck. The child gets dressed and parent and child go merrily on their way. It may seem like it worked.
But research underscores the long-term negative consequences of using rewards to motivate children.
An astute child will become a mercenary. “I shouldn’t do anything without a reward. In fact, if I often delay and resist, I am more likely to get more goodies.” Children do not learn the joy of goodness but the value of resistance.
Often unnoticed in the bargain is the fact that the parent also learned unhealthy lessons. The parent learned that bribes can replace the more challenging path of teaching and motivating children. The parent short-circuited the important work of motivation. Just as surely as bribes corrupt politics, so they also corrupt both parents and children.
Consider an alternative. Imagine that a wise parent plans ahead, considering not only the schedule but the disposition of the child. Maybe the parent knows that one particular child does not like to be rushed. Or surprised. So that parent helps that child get ready. Ahead of departure time, the parent might say something like: “In a little while, we get to go visit some places. One of them is the grocery store. I know you like helping me there! Is there anything special we should buy for our lunch?” Maybe parent and child plan some lunch purchases. “I like your ideas! What would you like to wear to the store? Do you want to get ready now?”
Notice the effect. The parent gives the child information and invites her to help in the planning. The invitation to get ready for the outing does not depend on power or bribes but on respect and cooperation. It creates a very different mindset in the child from the use of power or bribes. It fits beautifully with the research recommendation that we use as little power as absolutely necessary.
Some may object that this method takes a lot of time. Yes. Building character and relationships does take time. We will reap as we sow.
All of research is perfectly compatible with the Lord’s instruction:
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of [parenthood], only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile— (D&C 121:41-42)
When we use rewards to motivate children, we distort development. Research shows that children stop doing things (such as creating and cooperating) for the sheer joy of doing them and start doing only those things that pay dividends. Also, with the focus on rewards instead of joy, the quality of their work suffers, and their generosity shrinks.
More importantly, God’s system of motivation is undermined. God’s highest motivation is His relationship with us; the best motivation for children—and the best preparation for them to be in relationship with God—is the loving, patient, teaching relationship we provide them.
It will take time for us to cultivate a trusting relationship with each child. That is how God designed it. There is no shortcut to character and connection.
Invitation: Think about the “friction points” in your relationship with one of your children. Consider how you could use more time, teaching, and connection to win cooperation and teach teamwork.
Recommendation: For more about the problems of rewards, see Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. For more about the research on the subject, see the work of Mark Lepper or Martin Hoffman.
Thanks to Barbara Keil for her editorial suggestions.