Punished By Rewards, Part II

I began writing about guiding children’s appropriate behaviors, and because the subject is so complex, I felt there was a need for a continuation. Previously, I wrote that our ideal goal is to support children’s developing sense of “intrinsic motivation,” or the internal desire to behave appropriately rather than waiting to receive external rewards or punishments. I advised, generally, not to use “sticker systems” or to give children money, toys or food treats for behaving “well.”

However, there are times when a sticker system or incentive program can be beneficial. If you decide to use this type of short-term system with your preschool-aged or older child here are a few aspects to consider:

  • An incentive system should be used for only one behavioral expectation at a time, stated positively to your child. In other words, say “You will receive a sticker for each car ride that you keep your hands and legs to yourself” as opposed to “You will get a sticker when you don’t hit, don’t punch, don’t poke and don’t kick your brother.”
  • Be specific about the expected behavior. In other words, don’t just say that the incentive is for “being good,” “being a big girl,” or for “treating someone with respect.”
  • Clearly communicate what the reward will be and the number of stickers it will take to receive the reward. Pick a low enough number to set your child up for success.
  • Choose a reward that is meaningful for your child but not one that will be devastating if not received. Don’t use money or food – they truly can create future adults who are greedy/materialistic or who overeat, using food to comfort their adult pains.
  • Be consistent, calm and fair in judging your child’s success each and every time. Ask your child if he thinks he was successful.
  • The goal of a short-term system like this must always be to wean your child off of it. Help your child notice and develop an appreciation for their successful abilities so that they will be motivated to succeed after the incentive system has stopped.

Most importantly, make sure your child knows that your love is not conditional on their behaviors; you may hate hitting, name-calling or a messy room, but you will always love them!


Richard Cohen, M.A.

Vice President, Education