Rewards: How effective are they in disciplining children?

Besides Punishment, another commonly used method to discipline children is through rewards. Parents often resort to rewarding children in the hope of motivating or changing
their behaviour. Rewards include bribes, giving stars or stickers for good behaviour,conditional gifts and even praise. Believe it or not praise is a verbal reward! At times, we make
statements such as:

● “If you come first in class, we will get you a cycle.”
● “For every day you brush your teeth you will get 1 star. 50 stars = a big bar of chocolate.”
● “Good girl always listen to Appa.”

Though rewards may be useful in getting the job at hand done, the pressing question is whether children will do the required task even when there is no carrot at the end of the stick. Imagine a situation if children put away their toys only if they are rewarded OR eat food only if they get a pat on their back! Rewards are an external means of control. Do they help in building self-discipline?

Several studies have been done lately to find out whether rewards really motivate the best in people. In his book ‘Drive’, Daniel Pink says that human motivation is largely intrinsic. He argues against old models of motivation driven by rewards, and fear of punishment. He talks about how low-level tasks are influenced by the pay, but if the task is about interest, creativity, challenge, engagement with the work , then incentives do not work. It is freedom, autonomy, a favourable environment, supportive relationships which makes one want to do their best.

Alfie Kohn, author of ‘Punished by Rewards’ and expert on human behaviour, education and parenting, has established that the more we reward children, the less interested they are in the task. By rewarding, we parents are nullifying the child’s desire to learn as the lure of the reward is huge. This may push the child to use any means to get the reward. E.g. If the child is told that getting good marks will win him a prize, he may cheat in the exam to get the reward. When the reward is not gained, it de-motivates and angers the child. So not getting the reward becomes a punishment according to Alfie Kohn.

Rewarding may put a strain on the parent child relationship. A mother in our workshop shared how she would reward her children’s good behaviour by giving stars. One day her children said ‘Amma, we’ll keep a chart for you! The days you are good, you will get a gold star and for the days you shout at us a black one!’ The mother realised the pressure of being constantly judged and every action of hers being frowned upon. Do we need to generate anger and
resentment in our children by constantly evaluating every action of theirs?

Also, unknowingly we may cause rivalry in sibling relationships through giving rewards. We start with small things, to get the work done. ‘Let’s see who finishes the milk first? Let’s see who gets ready for school first...Good girl!’ When one child gets rewarded with praise, the other is bound to feel punished. This leads to anger and resentment for both the parent and siblings.

A reward system to motivate children only makes them selfish and transactional in the long run. Children view their parents as someone who dispenses goodies. Hence, they make demands-“I will do this only if you get me that.” Parents in our workshops share how the rewards only get bigger as the children grow older.

Wouldn’t we want our children to do the right things for the right reasons rather than the enticement of a sweet? If yes, rewards are not an effective tool for building inner discipline.

Author : PRERNA KALRA, is a certified parent educator with Parenting Matters, an organization which empowers parents to build deeper connection in families.