Child development experts have found that rewards -- such as gifts for good grades, treats for nice behavior, or money for household chores -- can have a downside.
"There's nothing wrong with rewarding kids for an exceptional job," says Teresa Amabile, Ph.D., psychologist and professor at Harvard University. "The problem occurs when rewards are dangled like carrots in front of children to compel them to do something."
Used too often, however, rewards can send children subtle negative messages that parents may not recognize. Four of those messages are described in detail on the next page.
Message 1: The reason I should change my behavior is that Mom or Dad will give me something.
Rewards used to lure children into behaving better can work at first, but the results are often temporary.
"The basic danger when you tell kids 'Do this and you'll get that' is that it shifts their focus away from the behavior that needs improving and simply sends them into a rush to get that tangible reward," says Victor Malatesta, Ph.D., psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
Dana Johnson, a mother from Philadelphia, learned that truth. In an effort to motivate her son to do better in fourth grade, she promised video games if he behaved well and a wristwatch for better grades. Johnson even convinced her son's teachers to offer him free merchandise coupons for the school store each day if he didn't disrupt his class. The rewards worked at first, but as his enthusiasm for the goodies declined, so did his performance.
"When I finally just sat down and explained to Breeland that he had to do better in school or else he would have to repeat the grade while his friends moved ahead, that really sunk in," Johnson said. "It's something he didn't want to happen." When his mom rewarded his achievements with hugs and praise, Breeland continued to improve.
Message 2: If there's nothing in it for me, there's no reason to do it.
Perhaps the most serious concern about rewards is that they can cripple self-motivation.
"Rewards may make it difficult for kids to develop their own internal motivations for doing things," says Adele Gottfried, Ph.D., professor and former chair of educational psychology and counseling at California State University, Northridge. With their attention fixated on a reward, Gottfried suggests, some children are less likely to learn what it feels like to be proud of doing something. In a study, Gottfried found that kids who were promised money, toys, or other material incentives for good grades eventually enjoyed school less, had more difficulty meeting a new challenge, and performed worse in school than kids who were not offered rewards.
In another study, this one at Arizona State University, researchers found that 4-year-olds whose parents believed in rewarding them for nice behavior such as sharing or helping others were less generous and cooperative over time than children raised without rewards.
It takes time for children to meet the standards you set, but it can be done, as Paulette and Bob Furnia discovered. At their upstate New York church, some parents allow their children to run and play in the aisles during service.
"I didn't want my kids behaving like that," says Paulette. "That's a tough thing to get across when other kids are doing it." Some parents promised breakfast at a restaurant or a toy if their kids sat quietly.
"One of our friends used all sorts of gimmicks and still had a constant battle," she added. "I just reminded my kids that's not the way we behave. And after church I said, 'You were great in there. That must have been tough, but I'm really proud of you.' They just beamed."
Message 3: My parents are trying to control me.
"Rewards, like punishments, are essentially a way of controlling, and no one ever learned to be a responsible citizen through control," says Alfie Kohn, a national lecturer on human behavior and author of Punished by Rewards. "At best, they create mindless obedience and they often lead to defiance."
Message 4: This must be something that I wouldn't normally want to do.
Children react very logically when parents promise them rewards for doing something.
"When you say, 'Do X and I'll give you a gold star or an ice cream,' a child's immediate response is, 'Gee, X must be something I wouldn't want to do, otherwise they wouldn't be offering me a bribe,' " says Kohn.
Teachers often find that children who participate in read-for-reward programs pick up more books. However, their level of comprehension along with their interest in reading itself may well decline when the point of picking up books is to earn points, pizza, or payments.
"The more rewards you offer for something, the more a child's commitment to doing it for any other reason evaporates," Kohn adds.
Grace and Gary Cummings of Newtown, Pennsylvania, parents of four, are still trying to undo their kids' bad attitudes about helping around the house.
"Things just weren't getting done, so I made a chart with 35 jobs and attached a dollar value to each," said Grace. "That worked for about a month."
Afterward, the Cummings kids would halfheartedly do only the high-paying chores. After a while, they wouldn't do chores at all; they didn't think it was worth it.
"Talk to kids about why you need their help in pitching in," suggests Malatesta. "And explain how teamwork allows you all to spend more free time together, something most kids crave. Sometimes a simple explanation -- combined with a little empathy if needed -- makes a big difference."
Getting kids back to doing things for the right reasons can be a bumpy road, Kohn says. "Bring the kids in on it. Most problems that surface in families can be solved in a conversation that begins with 'What do you think we can do?'"
Instead of dangling carrots, recognize kids' efforts and achievements through conversation. "Hey, you're doing better on your spelling tests. How did you do it? How do you feel?" An occasional material reward is fine, but not when used as a lure.
Reevaluate your expectations. Is it necessary that your kids get As? Is it terrible if they aren't potty trained by a specific date? Often, persistent behavior problems work themselves out when parents stop focusing on the negative and shift their attention to the positive.
While many experts, including Kohn, believe that any reward, tangible or not, is manipulative, others say verbal praise is a better motivator than goodies.
Malatesta suggests saying, "I liked it when you were quiet when I was on the phone," or "I'm proud that you told your sister she was annoying you instead of hitting her."
"Those are the kinds of things that motivate kids," he says.