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Get Ahead Kids - Vol. 4, No. 6 - November/December 2012

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Punished with Rewards

By Dr. Rob McEwan

How often have you heard parents telling their children they will get a certain amount of money, or products or holidays for good exam results? This article questions the wisdom of rewarding kids as a means of controlling behaviour.

Often when we look to promote certain behaviours in our children, the question of rewards inevitably arises. The use of incentives as an attempt to change behaviour has a long history.

As adults, we are constantly encouraged to buy a product, complete a survey or attend a seminar through the use of rewards. Examples include shopper points, customer loyalty benefits, fuel discount vouchers, buy two get one free offers, complete the survey and go into a draw to win a prize, to name just a few. The use of rewards to promote changes in behaviour is widespread and used relentlessly in advertising campaigns, in schools and at work.

With rewards surrounding us in our own daily lives, it seems natural to use similar 'tactics' when trying to get our children to behave in a certain way. Have you heard yourself saying, "You can have an ice cream if you behave yourself", or "When you get ten stars you can have a toy", and, "Santa only comes to good boys and girls" or words to that effect? As children grow older, some parents offer money or gifts as a reward for good results in exams or on a school report. Rewarding children for 'good' behaviour or 'good' results seems to make sense. What could be wrong with rewarding positive behaviour?

On the surface, rewarding desirable behaviour in our children seems to be an effective strategy in bringing about a positive change. After all, children usually do what we ask almost immediately on the promise of a reward. Scratch the surface, however, and we find the short-term benefits may be concealing longer term problems.

Let's consider rewards used to have children complete a task, for example, gold stars for making their bed in the morning. While your motivation is to have them make their bed, your child's motivation is simply to gain gold stars. When the gold stars stop, so too does the bed making. The reward becomes a distraction from the real reason you wanted your child to perform the task in the first place. In other words, the reward motivates your child to get a reward, not to perform the task. The task is simply the barrier to the reward.

There have been numerous studies conducted over the past forty years that have consistently shown that when children anticipate a reward for completing a task or achieving at a certain level, their performance drops, they lose interest in the task, are less creative and furthermore, your relationship with your child suffers.

In one study, high school students were given tasks that assessed their memory and creativity. Those students promised a reward demonstrated appreciable declines in both areas while those not offered rewards performed at a consistent level.

In another study, students who received pizza vouchers as part of a fast food chain sponsorship programme to encourage children to read began reading shorter, less interesting books to increase the number of books read. Not only did the quality of the reading material decrease, student reading outside of school was lower after the sponsored reading programme when compared with reading prior to the programme and lower when compared to children that did not participate in the programme.

It would appear that reading became an obstacle to receiving pizza vouchers. The more children want the reward the more they dislike the task they need to complete to receive the reward. The evidence from this and many other studies points to rewards increasing activity in the short-term while lowering creativity, interest and achievement in the long-term.

In the examples provided above, children were rewarded for completing a task. A more harmful use of rewards occurs when we link the reward to a level of performance, for example, achieving a certain mark in an examination or being selected for a team. Not only have studies found that children's results on school assessments drop after being offered money for better marks, we risk changing our relationship with our children from that of a supporter to that of a judge.

You may be able to recall a time when you were offered a reward for achieving at a certain level and the disappointment that you felt when you just missed out, it may have been applying for a job or being considered to attend an event. This level of disappointment is the same a child feels when we offer them a new tennis racquet if they make the team or money for each A they achieve on their school report.

When your child just misses out on the team or receives a B, they are left feeling they have failed. In effect, we encouraged a sense of hope and anticipation by dangling a reward, but only delivered disappointment when the reward was taken away. When we use rewards to motivate children, we are only motivating them to get the reward. A 'do this to get that' approach will always have the child focussing on the 'that' not the 'this'.

For rewards to be effective they need to lead to lasting change in thinking and behaviour. Below are some suggestions based on research that will help reduce the long term negative effects of rewards.

How Rewards Can Become More Rewarding

  • Make rewards a surprise. By offering a reward after the event you prevent your child from engaging in the task purely to get a reward. The most effective rewards and praise are those offered when they are least expected.
  • Only offer rewards in areas where your child has little or no interest, for example washing dishes. The reward should only be used to initiate engagement before directing their attention to how it makes you feel to see them doing the task. Rewards do most harm when they are associated with an activity your child enjoys. The greater the reward the more a child's interest in the activity is undermined.
  • Relate the type of reward to the task. If you feel you must reward a child for reading, make the reward a book of the child's choice (not a pizza).
  • Use rewards sparingly. The regular use of rewards in motivating children can lead them to expect praise or a prize for simply completing daily routines, behaving appropriately or doing well in an activity. They become conditioned to being rewarded, in turn leading to a false sense of entitlement. When the rewards are not offered in the future, children are left disappointed and lack perseverance and motivation.
  • Interest and enjoyment are the greatest motivators. Direct your child's attention towards the pleasure they experience from completing a task, not the outcome or a possible reward. For example, statements like, "You looked like you were having fun out there", or, "It felt good to see you sharing your study notes", together with questions such as "Did you enjoy the book?" not only heighten awareness of intrinsic motivation but also build your relationship as you show an interest in their feelings.
  • Be the supporter not the judge. Rather than set the criteria for your child's success, let them set the standard. Questions like, "Are you happy with your performance?" often bring honest self-assessments that lead to improvement in the future. Alternatively, a child who feels they have done well can be left demoralised when we suggest they could have done better. Or worse, we offer and then withhold a reward for not meeting our standards.
  • Never offer a reward when a child is misbehaving - this is a bribe not a reward. A child, who is offered a reward to behave, quickly learns that by misbehaving they are likely to be offered more rewards in the future.
  • In numerous parenting articles and at schools, we are told punishment is out; rewards are in. Catch your child doing something positive and reward or praise them for it. The irony is that rewards and punishment are two sides of the same coin. A coin intended to control behaviour. If rewards do not lead to lasting change they are not really rewards, they are sticks disguised as carrots.

About Dr. Rob McEwan

Dr. Rob McEwan is the Head of Senior School and Deputy Headmaster at Newcastle Grammar School. He has presented at national and international education conferences and led teacher professional development across a range of schools. His doctoral thesis explored student motivation and he has published articles on the explicit teaching of higher order thinking skills.

More Information

Michelle O'Toole
Communications Manager
Newcastle Grammar School
P: 02 4929 5811
www.ngs.nsw.edu.au



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