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Should You Reward Your Kids?

By Mark Brandenburg

For many years there's been a debate about rewarding our children. Does rewarding children work? Should you do it -- and if so, what kind of rewards should you use?

If rewards did work, they would help us to raise responsible and well-adjusted children. Let's look at how rewards really do work.

How do rewards work?
To use rewards, we establish a standard with our kids and give them something if they meet this standard. Punishment can be given out in much the same way, but it's used when certain standards of performance, behavior, etc., have not been met.

The problem here is not that rewards and punishments don't have immediate results. They often do have quick results. Kids often will become more obedient when threatened with punishment and work hard when promised a valuable reward. The problem is what happens when you aren't around.

To develop responsible, self-disciplined kids, parents can promote certain ideas. One of these ideas might be that everyone pitches in and helps in your family. Another might be that there can be enjoyment in doing any task if we choose to make it so. Even if it's a task we don't like doing, we understand that it's for a good cause (our family can enjoy the house more because I helped clean it).

This is how we help children develop an intrinsic sense of value. When our children have this intrinsic sense of value, they become more responsible, more disciplined and control their emotions better. They learn that we often do things because there's some inherent value in doing these things and that they're necessary -- and sometimes even enjoyable!

Discounting inner value
When we give rewards to our kids, we significantly reduce the intrinsic sense of value they have for that activity. We create children who may temporarily perform to a certain standard but who aren't likely to continue the performance without the carrot dangling in front of them. These kinds of values must come from inside.

In his book Punished by Rewards (1993), author Alfie Kohn writes, "But if we are ultimately concerned with the kind of people our children will become, there are no shortcuts. Good values have to be grown from the inside out. Rewards and punishment can change behavior (for a while), but they cannot change the person who engages in the behavior, at least in the way we want.

No behavioral manipulation ever helped a child develop a commitment to become a caring and responsible person. No reward for doing something we approve of ever gave a child a reason for continuing to act that way when there was no longer any reward to be gained for doing so."

Building responsibility
Parents can also remember how important it is to allow your young children to help out with tasks around the house (without being rewarded). Children naturally want to help out their parents and to be a part of the family chores. Some researchers have suggested that one of the main factors responsible for success and happiness in adults is how involved they were in doing household chores when they were as young as age three or four!

Parents can tap into this natural inclination of children to be involved in family chores, allowing them opportunities to become active participants. While it's easy to do things yourself because of how messy or slow your children may be, this early training is invaluable for your children. Parents who don't start this early training may find older children either unwilling to help out or expecting rewards for their services.

Here are some action steps for parents concerning rewards:

Look at how you are doing or not doing rewards now. Are you promising candy for behaving well at Grandma's house? Even the smallest rewards now can set the table for bigger expectations from your kids in the future.
Start giving your kids tasks that they can be responsible for at a very early age. See them as capable of it and treat them that way.
Talk often about how you are a family that works together and cooperates with each other in order to complete the tasks that need to be done.
Use subtle rewards with your kids. “As soon as you clean up, you can go to Grandma's” can work very well. “If you clean up, I'll give you some candy” usually turns around and bites you in the rear later on.

You can help give your children a sense of helping and shared responsibility for the family which can last a lifetime. The idea of cooperation for kids needs to be developed and nurtured. They learn it from the inside out. Help your kids to learn it, and you'll both benefit.

© Mark Brandenburg.

Mark Brandenburg, MA, CPCC, CSC, is an author, speaker and certified relationship coach. He has worked with individuals, teams and families to improve their lives for more than 20 years. He is the author of a number of books for men, including 25 Secrets of Emotionally Intelligent Fathers. Mark coaches parents from around the country through weekly telephone coaching sessions on balancing their lives and improving their parenting. He runs workshops and gives presentations for fathers and for parents that are enthusiastically received, as well as teleclasses for parents at

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