How to Use a Rewards System for Your Kid — the Right Way

Now that Rui’s getting older, I slowly begin to realize that this parenting gig is also getting harder. Sure, we may be way past late night feedings, burps, and explosive poop, but we are also facing different parenting challenges these days. Whereas before, we just have to ask her to always pack up her toys after use, these days she launches into a number of “why’s” and “do I have to’s” before doing our requests. And while it may be easier to do some chores ourselves, we still want her to do them for herself in order to train her to be more self-sufficient and independent, again, as training and preparation for her adult life.

This is the reason why we have somewhat implemented a loose rewards system for her at home. A rewards system is a well-known parenting hack or practice wherein parents reward their kids for good behavior. Google it and you’ll get hundreds of sites and free downloadables offering tips, hacks, and worksheets to help you effectively implement it at home. Rewards can be small or big ones, a mommy friend used stickers and candies to successfully potty-train her kids, while another one rewards her kid with his choice of toy if he performs well in school. But while there are a number of advocates for the rewards system, there are also naysayers.

The bad

Several articles have warned that rewarding kids for every good behavior or deed “can erode children’s innate tendency to help others.” It traces this concern to research from as early as the 1970s, wherein rewarding kids for politeness, accomplishing their chores or homework, or even doing well in school quenches their innate desire to do these by their own. What’s worse, studies say that kids could become callous and manipulative. A teacher friend echoes this sentiment, telling me that the bad thing about implementing a rewards system is when kids ask and expect that they’ll always get something in exchange for their good behavior, instead of them learning and doing it on their own, without the expectation or need of any kind of reward.

So in light of this, do we just drop the rewards system altogether? Well, not entirely. But being mindful of implementing the rewards system might help.

To start off, keep in mind how the rewards system works:

  • Identify your child’s bad behavior that you want to change.
  • Think of another behavior (right behavior) that can best replace it.
  • Start to develop your reward system.
  • Whenever your child displays the bad behavior, point it out to him.
  • After doing so, explain the right behavior to your child and inform him that he will be rewarded if he displays this behavior instead.
  • Once your child displays/performs the right behavior soon after, reward him.
  • Try to be consistent and practice the rewards system to boost the right behavior for around 2 months.

Smaller is better.

If you’re worried that the use of a rewards system might impact your family financially, then keep in mind that rewards do not always have to be big or substantial. Simply put, rewards do not have to be store-bought or expensive toys. In fact, studies have determined that when it comes to rewards for kids, smaller is better. Although big rewards might produce immediate results, it does not necessarily help your kids to accept responsibility for or remain committed to their behavior. On the other hand, small rewards more likely tell your child that what they have done is right.

At the same time, also keep in mind that small rewards and praise are easier to dole out frequently compared to big rewards. For a rewards system to be effective, the rewards or praise must be given out right after and every time the good behavior is shown, so as to quickly enforce what is acceptable and what is not. Hence, small rewards are better in terms of cost in time and money.

Structure a Small Rewards Program:

Most rewards programs can have two basic structures. As parents, it is up to us to determine which one or how to mix both to benefit our child.

  1. Direct: this means that a reward is given to your child right after a good behavior. For example, you can tell your child, “go to bed before 9 and I will read you a bedtime story.” The direct reward of a story will boost the behavior change you are trying to foster in your child regarding time.
  2. Point system: this approach uses a chart system — wherein every positive behavior is rewarded with a star on the said chart. You can set a number of stars upon which your child will get his reward. This approach works best in instilling repetitive behavior in your child such as cleaning up his toys and brushing his teeth. At the same time, it also teaches your child delayed gratification.

But, you should also watch out for these pitfalls:

  • Do not fuss over your child when they are trying to display the right behavior. Your attention is also a form of reward, so giving him too much of it might devalue your actual reward.
  • Give the reward right after the behavior. Doing so will enforce a stronger association between the two.
  • Stay consistent. Every time your child exhibits positive behavior, be sure to reward him consistently for at least 2 months. Not doing so will render your rewards program ineffective.
  • Specify and limit the desired behavior you want your child to exhibit to less than 3. Too many behavior changes might confuse your child.
  • The rewards system should be easy enough to understand and be sure to explain it to your child as well. Your child should be able to connect their behavior with the reward.
  • The rewards system works best on behaviors and not outcomes. If you intend to use a rewards system so that your child will get good grades in school, try to enforce positive behaviors that will result in the outcome of good grades.

All in all, using a rewards system has its advantages when done the right way. Also, keep in mind that all kids are unique, so the important thing is to come up and set up a system that works best for you and your child. Always, always remember that your child should understand what the rewards are for and that its main purpose is to instill in him the best behavior that will help him in life.

*Originally published in

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