Does a reward system really work?

I am going back to work and I am concerned about how to motivate my little one. Should I use a behavior modification program of stickers or some other reward system to encourage him to cooperate?


Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

You are understandably anxious about the changes that going back to work will bring. Clarifying expectations and getting organized is key to establishing a successful morning routine. But let's take a deeper look at whether or not, you should employ an incentive program.

Although rewards can motivate a child to cooperate, it is important to differentiate between discipline and behavior modification. Giving your young child stickers for what you want them to do will usually create initial results. However, the newness of the incentive program does wear off, sometimes rather quickly and you will still need to enforce negative consequences for unacceptable behavior when it occurs. Of course, much depends upon your child.

A child that is naturally oriented towards approval may respond to positive reinforcement. Sticker rewards may prove a great success! A child that learns from bumping up against the limits may be less responsive to this approach. Seeking approval and limit testing are both normal ways for a child to learn to "go by the rules," and most children need some of each.

What are your household rules? Clear expectations and consistent consequences are the keys to success in establishing cooperation throughout your child's development. An alternative to a reward program is to create a family atmosphere of cooperative expectation from the start. Rules may include that we all brush our teeth in the morning, comb our hair, wash our faces and eat breakfast. True cooperation also means that I do something for you and you do something for me. Cooperative members are rewarded with privileges, like going to the zoo, getting a new lunch box or even a new toy. Cooperation is also rewarded with simply feeling connected to other family members.

Sticker reinforcement focuses your child on the accumulation of "goodies," rather than the spirit of cooperation. It can however, provide a jump start to cooperative behavior. Still, parents must be willing to deal with setting limits and encouraging behavior through expectation and natural consequences in the long run.

I do offer a word of caution and advice when deciding to modify your child's behavior. Separate actions from feelings. Parents sometimes have unrealistic expectations that their child feel happy about cooperating. If the morning routine is to put your clothes on, before coming to the breakfast table, your child need not like doing it, but he must accept it.

Reflecting your child's feelings will help them cooperate, rather than "act out" with a tantrum. "You are mad right now, I know, but you still must put your clothes on, before coming to the table. Then we can read our morning story". The formula here is that there is a natural reward, organic to the cooperation involved in family life. If the child chooses to not cooperate, then this may create a negative result of not having time for his morning story.

Make room for feelings AND expect your child to do their part in the family. If the consequences are not overly harsh and the expectations are realistic to your child's development, cooperation becomes a family affair!

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