I had the wonderful opportunity to host a podcast with Dr. Ross Greene today and one of the topics that he covered was rewards. Yes: shiny stickers, stars and tokens that all attempt to yell out to a child “you are good!” Or perhaps “you pleased me.”

With kids, when we are trying to harness an expected behaviour, we often turn to reward systems. Where does it all go sideways? Research shows that rewards – although tantalizing to start- lose their allure very quickly. After a couple of weeks, kids  tend to care less about the reward. And the behaviour we were trying to extinguish often comes roaring back. Interestingly research also shows that reward systems actually decrease a child’s internal motivation. For instance, kids who are rewarded for sharing tend to share less and less overtime. This is the over justification effect.

Why? Let’s think about the sticker process.  A mother wants her child, Sarah, to tidy up her clothes. Every time, she does so- she give her a sticker. Sarah has not really learned anything in this exchange except when I pick up my clothes, I get something pretty. In order for a behaviour to stick Sarah has to want to engage in tidying up, she has to understand the value of the activity, she has to have the skills to execute the task, and- importantly- she has to feel as if she has a voice in what’s being asked of her. This is where it falls apart. The focus is on getting the sticker. It is not truly about Sarah, what she needs, what’s not working, and what could work instead. When she does not get a sticker, the message is that she failed. When she does get the sticker, she succeeded. 

Stop for a minute and think about what we are teaching our kids.

The message from the adult to the child is “I am in control. I have the power. Your intentions can be manipulated by an external object and you lack internal motivation to complete a task.” What if we were to shift our perspective and invite Sarah into the conversation as a key stakeholder to ask  her what’s getting in the way of her tidying up? We can ask the mom why it is important to her that Sarah tidies up. Together Sarah and her mom can come up with a solution to help Sarah with tidying up her clothes. No gimmicks, no fairy dust, no plastic toys – this is about truly seeing Sarah and asking “What does she need?” This is how we grow little human beings who respond to their world from an internal sense of control instead of an external locus of control.

Next time you reach for the sticker chart – as tempting as it is-  choose to sit down with your child instead. Together, you have an answer that is far more powerful than any short-lived reward system.

At the Institute of Child Psychology, we have an incredible workshop on Compassionate discipline – a workshop which synthesizes all of the research on children, behaviour, attachment and brain development and offers parents a concrete roadmap with tools and strategies to en

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