Resisting Rewards: When Treats Turn Sour

Child Holding Lollipop

Times are tough, and some days it seems that we live in an increasingly “What’s in it for me?” society. Worse, we see it in our kids, too—they won’t so much as empty the dishwasher without trying to bargain for some extra TV time. What does a parent have to do to get good behavior and a child who’s willing to help out?

The best solution? Quit rewarding your kids for behavior you should be able to expect. For instance, a child should not need a candy bar to make it through the grocery store without a tantrum, or a movie ticket as motivation to study for a test. And if we give our kids treats for such things, why would we expect these kinds of accomplishments in the future without offering yet another—probably steeper—reward?

Worse, plenty of studies have shown that kids who are rewarded actually lose interest in the activity they’re being rewarded for, from preschoolers making art to older kids reading. Yikes!

What does all this mean? In a nutshell, you’re doing your child no favor by doling out treats for his accomplishments or behavior. Instead, you’re setting him up for a “What’s in it for me?” attitude down the road.

By making a few changes, however, you can help your child develop a healthier mindset when it comes to good behavior and a “can-do” attitude.

Here are a few things that will help:

1. Develop When-Then Routines

Schedule key parts of your children’s day so that when they’ve completed the not-fun stuff (emptying the dishwasher, completing homework, practicing the piano), then they can do the fun stuff (join the family for dinner, play with their friends or enjoy their allotted TV time). This isn’t a reward – it’s placing the less desirable activity before the more enjoyable parts of your daily routine.

Note: For Positive Parenting Solutions Members, see Lessons 23 & 24 in Session 3 to learn how to diffuse your biggest power struggles.

2. Use Encouragement to Foster Internal Motivation

Be sure to notice your child’s hard work, good manners or helpful spirit—and tell her how much you appreciate these things. Then watch her beam with pride!

3. Use Consequences to Enforce Positive Behavior

When you’ve told your kids what kind of behavior you expect—whether that means picking up their toys before dinner or returning home before curfew—make sure they understand what happens if they fail to follow through.

If you regularly use rewards with your kids, the idea of stopping them could be daunting. But trust that they’ll do just fine under the new system.

To start, let your kids know that since they’re growing up, they don’t need sticker charts and other rewards anymore. Express confidence in their ability to cooperate without these treats. Hold a family meeting to discuss individual responsibilities, and then develop a when-then routine to help your kids get off on the right track. Make sure they know the consequences they’ll face for negative behavior.

With a little tweaking, your home can be one that’s free from the “What’s in it for me?” mindset. Even better, your kids will develop into the caring, responsible adults you know they can be.

For more strategies to raise responsible, respectful, un-entitled kids, join us for a FREE online class:  Get Kids to Listen Without Nagging, Reminding or Yelling. 

About the Author

Amy McCready
Nationally recognized parenting expert Amy McCready is the Founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and the best selling author of The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic - A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World and If I Have to Tell You One More Time…The Revolutionary Program That Gets Your Kids to Listen Without Nagging, Reminding or Yelling. As a “recovering yeller” and a Certified Positive Discipline Instructor, Amy is a champion of positive parenting techniques for happier families and well-behaved kids. Amy is a TODAY Show contributor and has been featured on CBS This Morning, CNN, Fox & Friends, MSNBC, Rachael Ray, Steve Harvey & others. In her most important role, she is the proud mom of two amazing young men.