Praising and reinforcing kids for positive behavior and, related, rewards for kids seem to be all the rage in dealing with children these days. One reads about rewards in magazines at the doctor’s office, sees them being used on Supernanny, and encounters them in school experiences. One school I know gives children lollipops intermittently (daily?) when they are able to maintain good behavior “green” status (as opposed to “yellow”/warning or “red”/stop) and then allows the class to watch a half-hour movie on Fridays if the majority of the kids have remained green all week. This in half-day kindergarten at a Christian school. Not every mom is thrilled about frequent sugar and weekly movies for their six-year olds during school time.
I’m all for affirmation and encouragement and try to build this into parenting wherever I can. But affirmation and rewards are different. I’ve been pondering rewards a good deal of late, trying to sort out in my own mind when their use is and isn’t appropriate. For starters I decided to simply list out some observations about rewards as a kind of baseline. So here goes:
1. Rewards are biblical. I see two types of rewards described in the Bible: consequence-based rewards and next-life rewards. Consequence-based rewards are set up in the Bible as truisms and relate to life on earth and God’s common grace woven through it. For example: we reap what we sow; diligent hands bring wealth. The consequence-based reward that’s most often quoted in the realm of childrearing is Ephesians 6:2 – 3, in which children who honor their parents get the reward of long life and life ‘going well.’ Next-life rewards relate to discrete physical rewards that Christ-followers will receive in heaven from God (beyond the best gift of all, which is the presence of our Savior); these appear to be tangible. Psalm 62:12, Matthew 5:12, Matthew 10;42, Matthew 16:27, and Colossians 3:24 (among others) all teach that God rewards faithful servants in the next life. We are not to follow Christ simply to get his rewards, and our salvation comes through faith in Him rather than actions. But the faithful, already accepted by God because of his grace and love, will receive rewards for service done out of love and obedience to God.
2. Rewards for children can (and often are intended to) work as a form of behavior modification. “I obey mommy, I get a sticker. I want a sticker so I’ll obey. I’ll only obey if I get a sticker.” If an external reward is offered routinely, then a child learns to think this way. The child expects a form of payment for compliance or cooperation.
3. Rewards that work towards behavior modification in children focus attention on actions rather than heart. If a child is trained to perform an act because he will be given something, he will (as noted above) learn to work for an external motivator that ultimately fosters self-gratification. This is not the goal of the parent concerned with building godliness into her child. A link can also be forged in the child’s mind between his actions and his acceptability to his parents. “I do x, I get y for doing x, and Mommy is happy with how I act.” The transaction is behavioral and the lack of connection to heart motivation causes the child to consider actions rather than motivations. Problem: God is much more interested in the heart than in behaviors (as the parable of the hypocritical praying Pharisee shows).
4. To help a child grow in godliness, a parent might be best served to use rewards minimally. Rewards aren’t bad in themselves but their overuse can be problematic for effective character training. It’s helpful for a child to learn that “it will go well with him” if he obeys his parents. This is true, biblically accurate, and relevant to his life. There are ways that parents can help a child internalize this message… but they may not include stickers or chocolate chips. More focus on the ‘consequence-based rewards’ (ie, “Hooray! You have more time to play with Mommy because you were so quick in picking up your toys!”) seems helpful to me than on external rewards (ie, “You helped me vacuum so I’ll give you a treat.”)
5. Our society utilizes rewards for children with increasing frequency, to the end that they seem to be overused in many settings today. If a child receives a lollipop three to five times per week in kindergarten, what value does it really have? I suspect the abundance of rewardsin society today correlates to the decrease in comfort with, and use of, appropriate correction when misbehavior occurs – in home and school settings. If an authority figure is unable or unwilling to correct a child for acting improperly, all they’re left with is affirming (and over-affirming) acceptable behavior… Even to the point of affirming routine, normative behavior.
To date my use of rewards has centered on specific issues with which my children are struggling – a regular temptation that I’m working to assist them in overcoming. One example: at age three my son would allow his post-nap bad mood to escalate and become monstrous. It was difficult for him to harness self-control and behave appropriately at this time of day. We instituted a sticker chart for him to serve as a motivator, giving him additional incentive (beyond Mommy’s expectations) to harness self-control. Once that issue was behind him developmentally, so was the sticker chart. Now that he’s four and becoming accustomed to a non-nap rest time, I’m experimenting with a marble-in-the-jar deal as he develops self-control to stay in his room during rest time (as this is another temptation area for him that I want to boost his motivation to address).
Any thoughts on this? Front burner issue for me just now, so I’d be interested.