Heart Pondering

The ponderings of one Christ-following mom on raising preschoolers

Reflections on rewards for kids January 27, 2010

Filed under: Behaviors,Culture,Training — Susan @ Christian Mothering @ 12:47 am

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.


4 Responses to “Reflections on rewards for kids”

  1. Kathleen Says:

    I really appreciate your clarity on this. Great points. We work really hard not to bribe our kids, too. Daddy has a “treasure box” and when he’s seen great behavior or marked improvement in what we know is a struggle for one child, he pulls out that box filled with little lego sets, bouncy balls, etc. and lets the child(ren) choose a treat. This happens maybe once every couple of months, and I think the infrequency is the key. They can’t ask and there is no hint to when he’ll pull it out. Most of the time Daddy just doles out verbal affirmation and a hug.

    Other than that, we just expect good behavior. Lollipops for normal everyday self-control and obedience is really over the top. What a wimpy culture we have.

    Thanks once again for sharing your ponderings.


  2. I like your insights on this. We follow the Growing Kids God’s Way teaching on this – just because it made sense to us. We don’t reward for behavior; like you said, that just teaches the child to behave for the reward. It’s not truly obedience then. We do give rewards for big skills attained, as something to look forward to for hard work. (Example: when my daughter mastered her multiplication tables, she got her ears pierced). This seems to follow the working world as well. Adults are rewarded for hard work in the workplace, not behavior.

  3. Caroline Says:

    I agree — best to stay away from the rewards. Food is an especially bad reward — it has enough issues surrounding it already. We often tell Katie (2) that she has to behave well if she wants to do certain things. For example, “If you want to go to the playground this afternoon, you’ll need to be very good this morning,” or, “If you continue to act badly, we won’t be able to go to the playground this afternoon.” I am wondering whether this is a mistake. It might be…

  4. heartpondering Says:

    Appreciate the comments. Michelle, I like the distinction between obedience and hard work and your correlatoin to the workplace / how it “really works out there.” That makes sense to me and seems to help prepare children well for the future.
    Caroline, your point is an interesting one. There’s a fine line between helping a child understand that their actions/choices matter and have real consequences… and linking behavior with external rewards. I do think one of our jobs is to help our kids grasp that their behavior has ramifications. If a kid behaves poorly, they lose privileges. “If you are not able to behave pleasantly and need to spend more time being grumpy, then you may do so in your room. Hanging out with the family is a privilege, and your behavior has lost you that privilege.” This situation ties into the law of sowing and reaping, a principal that kids need to learn, and it’s a statement I’ve made to my 4-year old son more than once.

    Your second statement is similar to this one except that 1) there’s a lapse of time between the behavior and the ramification that may be lost on the kid 2) especially since, at 2, she’s still on the young side for this.

    In general my tendency is to try to address misbehavior when it crops up immediately and as ‘finally’ as possible through correction so that there’s not a sense of lingering and unresolved consequences throughout the day. This is cleaner for me and for the kids. Generally speaking, too, I try to have a ‘grace’ mindset about fun things like outings – that they are gifts to the kids unrelated to merit in terms of their behavior that day. That said, there are days when I will choose to skip an outing if things are going poorly behavior-wise (though in many cases I would just decide in my own mind it was too much and that staying home would just work out better and not directly tie it to the behavior verbally with the kids. If we were about to leave and a child were acting out badly to the point where I felt a stark consequence was in ordr, I might say, “If you are not able to have self-control, then we will not be able to do this outing.”).
    I would probably be more apt to say: “You are playing so nicely together today and I’m so proud of you! That makes me want to do something fun together as a family so let’s so to the playground” than the other way around.
    I find myself thinking carefully about how I want to word things – in the arena of both rewards and consequences – so that the theology behind my thinking can, over time, penetrate to their hearts.

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