Rewarding Good Behavior

Two of my friends have diametrically opposed approaches for getting their kids to behave well and accomplish things. One thinks material rewards of various kinds are essential in encouraging good traits and discouraging bad ones.

The other believes the positive reinforcement of knowing a job has been done to the parents’ satisfaction should be reward enough.

Who's right? Let's take a closer look.

Ginny has a reward system for just about everything, from potty training to getting teens not to talk back. I love to visit her home because it's filled with progress charts and inspirations. The daughter of an elementary-school teacher, she grew up with reward systems. It was natural for her to carry on the tradition with her own nine kids, ages 21 to 4.

Ginny gives most of her rewards for short-term goals, like ridding oneself of a bad habit. Once the goal is reached, the reward system is dissipated. Often it has some connection with the liturgical season and can include things like filling a Popsicle-stick manger with yarn “straw” in hopes of finding a Baby Jesus doll asleep in the hay on Christmas morning.

Other times, she'll let her children accumulate points toward the purchase of a treat. A piece of candy goes a long way for practicing the piano well or getting an A on a spelling test. Major accomplishments could earn a trip for an ice cream cone or lunch date.

The best part for her children is when Dad (that's Matt to Ginny) gets home and they can share their successes with him.

“I only use rewards when there is a sincere struggle to accomplish a goal, not as a matter of course,” Ginny explains. “I don't think it's caused the kids to expect to receive something, because I never hear them say, ‘What will I get if I …?’ On the contrary, people often remark how easy our children are to please, in contrast with others they know.”

There have been times, Ginny admits, when rewards have not worked well. She sees these times as learning experiences that taught her something about the child's personality and maturity.

A mutual friend of ours, Mary, is leery of reward systems that include material goods. She thinks individual rewards tend to pit her six children, ages 13 to 18 months, against one another. It dubs one child successful while the other gets angry and feels like giving up. It can also teach children to expect a tangible reward for every chore performed or goal reached.

Rather, Mary and her husband, Tom, use group rewards such as going out to dinner in return for the teamwork required for planting the family garden or finishing certain tasks before Dad gets home from work. Individual rewards come in the form of hugs and verbal praisings. It's only on occasion that they will offer a prize, such as an audio book for the completion of a difficult reading lesson. They might reward their older children by taking their turn at doing dishes, taking them out to lunch or perhaps buying something special they've been wanting. But that's not the norm.

“It's dangerous for parents to use a material reward system,” Mary says. “The whole reason for doing a task becomes connected with a material reward. We try to avoid this type of ‘carrot chasing.’ As for getting them to do anything — we start young with definite expectations. The children feel successful academically and know they are needed, appreciated contributors to the household.”

Bribery Blunders

Dr. James Dobson, the evangelical-Protestant psychologist and founder of Focus on the Family who is popular among Catholics, tells parents not to use reward systems if they are philosophically opposed to them, although he's not opposed to them himself.

He notes that our entire society is composed of reward systems — paychecks for workers, medals of honor for heroic soldiers, watches presented to retiring employees and so on. Using reward systems for children, he says, can help prepare them for the adult world.

When contemplating how to reward children, Dobson adds, parents must anticipate the child's response. Some children respond well with material rewards while others do better with praise, hugs and special time together. It's important to know the child's likes and dislikes in order to choose the most effective reward for that child.

Rewards become bribes, according to Dobson, when they serve as “payoff” for disobedient or irresponsible behavior. He recommends against using rewards when the child has challenged the authority of the parent. For example, if a child is asked to do something by the parent and refuses, it is wrong for the parent to offer a reward to get the child to change his mind. That would be a bribe and would reinforce the child's belligerence. Next time the child is asked to do something, he'll wait for a reward before he does it.

“It is vitally important for parents to understand these principles, if for no other reason than to avoid rewarding unacceptable behavior,” he writes in his best seller Dr. Dobson Answers Your Questions About Raising Children. “In fact, it is remarkably easy and common to propagate undesirable behavior in young children by allowing it to succeed.”

Incentive Clause

Sally Lee, editor in chief of Parents magazine, advocates using incentives rather than bribes, which are usually given out of desperation.

“An incentive,” she wrote in a recent article, “marks consistent progress, encourages kids to change their habits for the long term and is agreed upon in advance rather than negotiated in the moment.”

Regardless of whether or not a parent decides to use a material-reward system, experts agree that verbal reinforcement should permeate the entire parent-child relationship. Parents will see greater progress by investing their energy into praising a child for admired behavior than by reprimanding for undesired behavior.

The ultimate goal, of course, is to form our children into conscientious Christians. To do that, we must nurture their souls as well as their minds and bodies. That means helping them to understand that whatever we do and however we do it must glorify God.

“The child is the very symbol of the soul — unspoiled, open, nonjudgmental, appreciative and loving,” write Mimi Doe and Marsha Walch in 10 Principles for Spiritual Parenting: Nurturing Your Child's Soul. “The child is whole and becomes divided as he grows. Our goal is to keep a spiritual wholeness intact in our children and in so doing help them remain God-centered.”

Pope John Paul II could hardly have said it better.

Marge Fenelon writes from Cudahy, Wisconsin.