Some parents have a hard time with rewarding their children for good behavior because they feel it is no different than bribery. Many also worry that their child will not learn to behave appropriately for the ‘right’ reasons or that their child will only behave if there is some type of tangible prize or reward at stake.
These are valid concerns, however, rewarding children for good behavior is actually very different than ‘bribing’ them. Especially when planned ahead, rewards serve as a positive consequence for nice behavior that reinforces the behavior and makes it more likely to happen again!
Children learn social behavior in stages, much the way they develop physically. You wouldn’t expect your infant to just get up and run across the room – first they roll over, then they sit, crawl, cruise on the furniture, take a few tentative steps, etc. until finally one day they are off and running! Likewise, ‘prosocial’ behavior emerges in a developmental sequence. As parents, our job is to give them lots of support in the beginning and gradually let them learn to do things on their own. Rewards are very effective in shaping children’s behavior as they navigate through all the different stages on the road to pro-social, adaptive behavior!
Providing little incentives for nice behavior (for example getting through the grocery store without a temper tantrum) is similar to holding their tiny hands so they can walk across the room with some support. You don’t expect to have to hold their hands to walk or offer a lollipop for good behavior in the grocery store when they are sixteen years old, but it’s a great way to get them on the right track when they are little. (You’ll be holding their hand and offering them lollipops for other things when they’re sixteen – like waiting to find out if they passed their driving test!).
As adults, we do things for rewards all the time and there’s no reason you can’t offer incentives to your children too! How many of us would show up to work week after week without the promise of a paycheck? With your child, just be sure that you are rewarding what you intend to reward. For example, if your child starts having a meltdown and you desperately offer them a lollipop for stopping the tantrum, they may start to have more frequent meltdowns so they can get a lollipop. In this case you would actually be reinforcing the meltdown, not the stopping of the meltdown! The best way to use rewards is to ‘capture’ the good behavior when you see it happening naturally. Also, rewarding doesn’t necessarily equate to candy either – a quick hug and a compliment goes a long way with your child and is a powerful reinforcer! [Read more on Encouraging Good Behavior and Reward Charts]
What is your opinion on rewarding children when they behave nicely?