Will Work for Stuff: Using Rewards to Modify Your Child’s Behavior

Mother And Daughter Loading Dishwasher Imagine, if you will, a world of obedient, well-mannered and well-behaved children. A world where the sounds of “please” and “thank you” float through the air unnoticed, not because they aren’t appreciated, but because they’re expected. A world in which parents don’t have to say things twice, threats of lost privileges are unnecessary, and the family unit functions like a well-oiled machine.

Homework? “Gee, I’d love to play video games with you, Sis. But, I’ve got to get my homework out of the way and clean my room first.”

Dirty dishes? “No problem, Mom, I’ve got this.”

Messy living room? “Take a load off, Dad. I’ll take care of it.”

This is a vision you might expect in some sort of child version of “The Stepford Wives,” where kids see something that needs to be done and just, well, do it.

Now, welcome back to reality. Try as hard as we may, it can be very difficult to get our kids to accept responsibility for their everyday tasks. Not only that, it can be even harder to instill in them the understanding that things like video games and TV are privileges that are earned. When you factor in the many things parents juggle every day – like working, keeping the house maintained, making sure everyone is where they’re supposed to be when they’re supposed to be there, etc., etc., etc. ­– it can be a seemingly impossible task.

Recently I had to confront this very issue in my own home. As my kids get older, I want them to take more responsibility for themselves and around the house. Not only because I want them to be upstanding citizens, but hey, I also need some help around that place. Maintaining a career, a family, and a home can be exhausting; the more help you have the better. This is where a reward system can help.

While a structure created to reward desirable behavior may not be a cure-all, it can certainly be a great place to start. When I implemented a system requiring my kids to earn day-to-day privileges, I immediately noticed a change. At ages 6 and 9, they’re still pretty young, so we started with some basic personal responsibility chores. Brushing your teeth and getting dressed on your own for school earns you two stars. Doing your homework and reading for 20 minutes without being told gives you another two stars. Once you’ve reached four stars, you’ve earned an hour of screen time for the day.

To get them to go above and beyond and become aware of all the other chores around the house, I added a weekly reward system. If they earned 40 stars over the course of the week, they’d get a special treat (like picking out a movie, a place to eat, a fun activity, etc.). They were practically begging me to give them something to do so they could earn more stars. It taught them they have to earn perks like video games, it limited the amount of screen time they had each day, and it taught them that families have to work together, not leaving all the responsibilities on the shoulders of the parents.

A guide to using behavior modification techniques on About.com notes that these rewards can be a great short-term tool to guide your child through to the next stage of social development. They offer up some steps to creating your own reward system at home:

  • Determine what desirable behaviors you’d like to help your child develop.
  • Determine what undesirable behaviors you’d like to help your child avoid.
  • Put together a list of privileges that your child can earn.
  • Establish a value (in stars, chips, stickers, etc.) for each behavior and privilege.
  • Present the system to your kids in a fun, positive way.
  • Be consistent!

These incentives can be useful when trying to get children to do their chores and take on more responsibilities, but when rewards become bribes they can be more problematic than beneficial. As NBCNews.com reports, many parents have chosen to offer up treats to their children in exchange for general good behavior, something that would have been unheard of in previous generations. This can create an environment where kids expect a reward for sitting quietly at the dinner table or doing well at school. As one parent shared, the downside of overusing these rewards is that some kids may develop a “sense of entitlement.”

According to Marcy Safyer, director of the Adelphi University Institute for Parenting, parents run into danger by not teaching their kids that the act of doing something brings its own reward. The way to solve for this is to make sure the reward matches the behavior; giving your son a brand new TV because he got an “A” on a test may not send the right message.

Ultimately, like anything in life, you have to strike a balance that works for you. By communicating clearly defined expectations, being consistent, and not going overboard, you’ll lay the foundation for your child to learn responsibility and take ownership. If done correctly, they’ll understand that they have to work for things in life and not just expect to receive whatever they want, whenever they want it. And, as an added perk, you’ll have fewer commands to give and things to cross off your own checklist.

Do you have any success stories about reward systems for kids? Have you found that these incentives are more harmful than good? If so, share your thoughts in the comments below!

 

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