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Get Ahead Kids - Vol. 4, No. 5 - September/October 2012

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Rewards Don't Work

By Jesper Juul (English adaptation by Hayes van der Meer)

"When you have done your homework we can go to the movies."

Many people think that rewarding children is a good thing. Rewarding them as part of their upbringing is used in many homes and throughout the education system. But is it an effective method?

Jesper Juul, the leader of FamilyLab Int. doesn't think so.

He calls it: "An abuse of power" and believes it is very damaging to their self-esteem as well as their feeling of self-worth.

The Two Types of Rewards

We must distinguish between rewards given when children perform at school, sport or dance and the rewards given for a desired behaviour - which means the child is "well behaved" - that is, from the parents point of view.

Children behave according to their parents' norms, values and ambitions. The former is perfectly all right and has never damaged a child or the relations between adults and children. At school it does create some competition between students, but nothing serious.

The latter - to manage and control children's behaviour - according to Juul is an abuse of power. If it is not considered abuse of power, then it can only be explained as a very old fashioned approach to raising children, which is based in the belief that they are naughty because they want to torment adults. However, this theory was rejected by neurological research more than 20 years ago.

The Problems with Rewards

One problem is that this discipline method actually works. This is especially true for children between one to five years old. Yet, it works only briefly.

After a while they will see through the method and respond either by ignoring it or constantly requiring more rewards.

Another problem is that this method by nature will also require that you use punishment when or if the reward stops working. This is often forgotten when we discuss or read about rewarding children.

Nevertheless, if we reward we must also punish and then we are back to the old "carrot and stick" method.

The real and underlying problem is, however, very different. It is the hidden message behind the reward that causes great harm. By rewarding you say: "I don't trust you, as I don't believe that you can behave properly unless I reward you!" This is a declaration of mistrust, which will have profound existential consequences for the child's development - especially in terms of self-worth and self-esteem. In other words, the method is more damaging the longer it is used and the more effective it is.

Not for the Child's Best

The fact is: no reward method is devised with the well-being of the child in mind. They are conceived as a kind of relief to the perplexed and sometimes desperate adults. These methods provide them with a kind of perceived certainty and confirmation of their own behaviour.

In this regard, a powerful FamilyLab principle comes in handy: if it works in your relations with other adults it will also work in your relations with children. Every woman or man trying to adjust the behaviour of their partner or friend by using rewards will soon discover that it very quickly will be dismissed as a preposterous joke.

About Jesper Juul

Jesper Juul is a family therapist and the founder of FamilyLab International. He is a renowned author and sought-after international speaker. Jesper Juul's international best-seller and must-have book for parents and educators is now available in an Australian/New Zealand edition: "Raising Competent Children". Published by

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