Health and Rewards for Kids: Striking a Balance
It’s currently one of the biggest debates among parents, educators, and health providers.
Guest Post by Amy Williams
Is praising a child with a treat for a job well done an appropriate reward or blatant bribery? Some feel rewards undermine motivation and do nothing more than encourage negative behaviors by reinforcing them. Others strongly believe implementing a reward system helps establish work ethic, instills a sense of pride in doing something well, and provides positive reinforcement for appropriate behaviors.
The front side of the argument believes offering rewards, especially edible sugary ones, can lead to multiple negative effects, including health risks such as weight gain, cavities, increased risk for type II diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol levels. It also can lead to emotional eating, the encouragement of overall poor eating habits, and the creation of a nearly insatiable sweet tooth, all of which further perpetuate those health risks. Coexisting with this negative health argument is the fact many people see rewards as a way to get children to stop a negative behavior, instead of encouraging a positive one in the first place.
The other approach to the argument is the idea that a reward is a positive consequence for doing the right thing. Implemented appropriately, rewards can be used as an incentive for making good initial decisions and demonstrating acceptable behaviors.
Let’s break it down more specifically. Offering a treat to stop a negative behaviour, commonly known as bribery, most often happens during a time of chaos or crisis. Think of it as a desperate negotiating ploy to just make them stop. For example, you are at the doctor’s office and your child is pitching a fit and bouncing off the walls. You have no choice but to sit and wait for the doctor to see you, all the while the older women in the office are giving you dirty looks, and the men are offering you unsolicited advice on how they would handle the situation. You are likely to bribe your child with whatever she wants if she will just stop the behaviour NOW. Lo and behold, the pack of cookies from the vending machine does the trick, she quiets down, and you get to wait for the good doctor in relative peace. The problem with this in the long run is you didn’t control the situation, your child manipulated it. She got exactly what she wanted, when she wanted it, and you were played. This will likely become a strategy she will use again because it worked for her. But it doesn’t modify her behaviour in a positive way; it reinforces the negative action.
On the flip side of this, rewards are not discussed and negotiated in the heat of the moment. Ideally, a reward system is thoughtfully planned and tangible rewards are laid out ahead of time as an incentive for appropriate behaviours. Much like an adult receives a paycheck for doing a job and doing it well, rewards are concrete “payment” for your child following through with what was previously laid out in your expectations. Instead of bribing them to stop a negative behaviour, it is her “paycheck” for doing the right thing. When coupled with praise and encouragement, rewards can be highly effective in promoting similar behaviours in the future.
However, for a reward system to work, some careful consideration needs to take place before a reward is ever offered. Together, parent and child should create a list of possible rewards and the necessary expectations required to earn them. This instills motivation and incentive to earn them, and by letting the child help determine the rewards, she will be more willing to work for them. Rewards can range from a special activity with Mum and/or Dad, to a favourite outing. The key is to balance the reward system with conversation about appropriate behaviours, teaching and modelling the expectations to earn the rewards, and keeping the rewards reasonable in both frequency and cost. If the reward isn’t earned on these expectations, it should not be given, or the system will be invalid and ineffective.
With thoughtful planning, and firm boundaries, a reward system can be a powerful tool to help shape your child’s behaviours. It can help instil motivation, purposeful intent, and acceptable social skills that can be carried over into all aspects of a child’s life.
Do you have a reward system in place when it comes to encouraging positive behaviour in your kids?
Amy Williams is a free-lance journalist based in Southern California and mother of two. As a parent, she enjoys spreading the word on positive parenting techniques in the digital age and raising awareness on issues like cyberbullying and online safety.