The Pros and Cons of Reward Charts

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When I bring up the topic of reward charts I get an array of passionate responses. Some parents rely heavily on them. Some parents come down hard on their use. So, what are their pros and cons? Do reward charts help to make a lasting change in behavior? Or is their impact only temporary? Do the gold stars encourage children to seek out external praise instead of feeling satisfied about a job well done? Or do those stickers serve as a useful gateway to boost self-confidence? Many questions, many situations, and many different personalities. We turn to Dr. Robert MacKenzie and Alfie Kohn for their opinions on this contentious matter. — Laurel Moglen, Managing Web Editor

Dr. Robert MacKenzie:

Reward charts can be an effective way to motivate children to complete tasks provided the charts are used in the appropriate manner. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind when considering using them:

If completing a task is based on incentives or rewards alone, essentially the parent is relying on what I call a “soft limit,” that is, compliance is optional, not required. Some kids do not value rewards or incentives to the point that they are willing to consistently perform tasks. In these situations, the training value of the lesson is lost.

Let me give an example. Let’s say a parent offers a special treat or money for picking up dog poop on a daily basis and notices that the poop hasn’t been picked up for several days. When the parent confronts the child and explains that he or she won’t receive the reward, the child responds,

“That’s OK, I have all the money I need,” or “I don’t want any extra TV time today.” Then what?

If completing the task is expected or required, then reliance on rewards alone will backfire with some kids. In these situations, adults are better advised to use a combination of incentives (e.g., rewards) for compliance and consequences for noncompliance. For example, if the parent expects a child to complete a chore on a daily basis (e.g. making their bed in the morning), the parent might offer a daily sticker or monetary reward for compliance (e.g., 25 cents/day or special privilege for 5 stickers a week)and a consequence (e.g., loss of 25 cents/day for noncompliance). The combination of incentives and consequences increases the training value and motivational value of the lesson. In effect, the child is rewarded for his or her compliance and penalized for noncompliance. The child learns the value of the lesson through cooperative choices or uncooperative choices.

This approach doubles the training value.

Alfie Kohn:

Reward charts — with or without punishments — shouldn’t be used because children aren’t pets to be trained.  Rewards, like punishments, are basically ways of doing things TO people (to make them obey), whereas the only way to help kids grow into decent, responsible, compassionate people is to work WITH them (to solve problems together).

Offering kids a sticker, or a gold star, or an edible treat, or a patronizing “Good job!” isn’t just manipulative and disrespectful.  It simply doesn’t work — at least to get anything beyond temporary compliance.  Scores of studies have found that the more you reward people for doing something, the less interest they come to have in whatever they had to do to get the reward.  Thus, kids who are offered a goodie (or praise) for sharing or helping actually tend to be less likely to act that way again if there’s nothing in it for them next time.  And a reward for reading a book is likely to make kids less excited about reading.  Now their question is, “What’ll I get for doing it?”

The only benefit of gimmicks like reward charts is that they’re easy for us.  It takes very little time or skill to rely on what one researcher called “sugar-coated control.”  By contrast, figuring out what kids need, or addressing problems in our relationship with them, requires a lot more from us.  And there’s no simple answer to the question “Then how do I get my child to . . . ?”  (Hint:  Sometimes the problem isn’t with the child who doesn’t do it, but with what it is we’re trying to make them do.)

One last point:  “Positive reinforcement” — exactly like punishments such as forcible isolation (euphemistically known as “time out”) — has one more strike against it.  It may communicate to children that we love them only when they please or impress us.  If developmental psychology teaches us anything, it’s that the core of a “working with” style of parenting is to make sure kids know that our care for them is unconditional:  Our love for them is not something they have to earn.

Robert MacKenzie, Ed.D is a Family Therapist, Educational Psychologist, and nationally recognized Parent Educator and Staff Development Trainer with more than 25 years of experience helping parents and teachers solve children’s learning and behavior problems.  He has authored, “Setting Limits”, “Setting Limits in the Classroom”, and “Setting Limits with your Strong Willed Child”.

Alfie Kohn writes and speaks widely on human behavior, education, and parenting. The author of twelve books and scores of articles, he lectures at education conferences and universities as well as to parent groups and corporations.


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Posted in: Expert Advice, Discipline, Learn, Modern Parenting