Rewards, Praise, or Something Else Entirely?

Rewards, Praise, or Something Else?

I’ve never been the Prize Fairy. At my previous job she had come before me, and with my stance on rewards I soon became the Prize Nazi. I worked in a place where we needed kids to do hard things. And naturally, everyone wanted to give them stickers, and Beanie Babies, and balloons, and all the things to make up for those hard things. Except for me. I wanted them to have intrinsic motivation!

My motivations were not ill-intentioned, as intrinsic motivation is a beautiful thing. And research shows that rewards can be detrimental to a child’s long-term growth and development.

  1. Rewards can take away the intrinsic desires and pleasures of a job well done and replace it with the need for external motivation and prodding.
  2. Kids get used to the initial reward and then want something bigger and better. It can easily turn into a power struggle if you are using the reward as a way to get them to do something.

I self-righteously replaced all my rewards with praise. “What a good boy!” “You’re such a good listener!” “You’re so kind to your brother!” I was the Praise Fairy! And I encouraged others around me to trade in their lollipops for words of praise.

It wasn’t til recently that I started to learn the detriments of too much praise.

  1. Praise can happen so often that it starts feeling like background noise. Kids don’t even hear it and they don’t feel like you’re really engaged in what they’re doing. Everything is a good job, so what’s the point of doing anything?
  2. Kids can become addicted to praise and need praise in order to have feelings of self-worth! If I don’t receive praise does this mean I’m not good enough?

In the long run, parents want children who work hard and enjoy their skills without needing reinforcements from the outside. We want kids who grow up to be adults that have confidence regardless of whether there is someone patting them on the back. Our goal is to raise kids who are virtuous and courageous even if no one is constantly complimenting them. We’re working towards adults with character.

Praise and rewards are not the way to get there.

So what can we do instead? Taking away praise and rewards doesn’t mean we don’t encourage our kids or do nice things for them. We just don’t link our encouragement and gifts to their behavior. Whether my child behaves poorly or perfectly I want her to know she is loved and appreciated.

So here’s what we do: acknowledge and appreciate. People want to be noticed. Acknowledge and notice what the child did in a loving and kind voice. Appreciate them with thanks for what they’ve done. Work to notice effort more than the end result in order to encourage a growth mindset.

  1. You worked really hard to put all of your toys away in the correct baskets!
  2. Thank you so much for helping me water all of the plants in the yard–it really helped to have someone do it with me!
  3. I saw you share that toy with your friend; I bet it made her so happy to play with you!

These are all lovely ways of appreciating and noticing the intention or effort behind your child’s actions, without providing your approval or disapproval on what they’ve done.

I’ve got a long way to go in moving from Praise Fairy to just a mom who notices. Who doesn’t need to praise or “good job” (as Kim John Payne says) everything and always. Who is working for the long-term instead of just in the moment. That’s what delights me about this parenting journey: finding new ways to love and support our children best!

What about you? Is this something you’ve thought about before? What do you think about rewards and praise?

Some super helpful reading on this topic: anything by Alfie Kohn, but particularly Unconditional Parenting.

Rewards & Praise: Is it good for kids?