If You're Good, I'll Buy You a Toy
The difference between bribing your child and rewarding your child.
Updated Friday, March 26, 2010, at 7:17 AM
2. The Hail Mary reward system. Some parents give rewards for a big outcome that occurs at the end of a long period. Promising a mega-prize for good grades at the end of a year is perhaps the most common example. Parents who want their child to study, do homework, and get good grades—and who have learned that pleas, reprimands, and threats don't often work—often turn to the Hail Mary. Typically, they promise their child a big reward—a trip to Disney World, use of the car—if she gets all A's at the end of the term. This is a misuse of rewards that's nearly guaranteed to fail.
The goal of a reward program should be to build specific behaviors, actions, and habits: bringing home your homework assignments regularly, doing them regularly, studying with a parent and then by yourself, and talking a little bit at the dinner table about one or two things you have studied. All of these are specific behaviors we want to develop and lock in and that can in fact contribute to good grades, not to mention learning. The focus on long-term outcomes alone—A's at the end of the year—puts the emphasis on the wrong thing and creates a crucial lag between the proper day-to-day behavior and the reward intended to reinforce it. Even if the child gets the grades, that outcome can occur for all sorts of reasons (including cheating) and does not always necessarily help develop the good habits we want to develop.
3. Complex reward systems. Some parents who come to the Yale Parenting Center have created complex point systems featuring multiple prizes that can be earned with different point totals, and bonus gimmicks galore. They also make physically beautiful point charts on which earned points are tracked as, for instance, spots on a leopard or ladybug, or as planets or stars in space. There's no reason to object to charts that are more creative and fun—just as long as you bear in mind that it's not necessary or more effective. But if you get too fancy with the reward system itself, you can undermine your own results.
The more complex the system, the harder it is to stick to and administer properly. Yes, if done correctly, it may well work. Yes, variations of systems like this have a technical name—a token economy—and have been used in basic training in the military, in educational settings from preschool through college, in assisted-living facilities to increase activities and social interaction among the elderly, and in workplaces to promote safe shop-floor habits. In all these settings, even fairly complex rewards systems have been proven to work. They can work in the home, too, but you probably don't need to use them. Parents can shape most of the behaviors they want by offering as rewards no more than attention, praise, and a few minor privileges.
A parent's attention is very rewarding to a child, and praise is even better. Parents are giving attention all the time, and they are giving mild forms of praise, verbal and nonverbal (a smile, a touch, an affectionate or impressed look). Attention and praise are our main rewards, and often they're sufficient to change behavior on their own, without resorting to tokens, privileges, or prizes.
But attention and praise can be used more precisely than they usually are. It's natural to make the mistake of devoting most of our attention to misbehavior, rather than to good behavior, and praise is often sporadic, not very specific (the generic "good job" doesn't convey precisely what the child did right), not particularly enthusiastic, and not systematically connected to some behavior that the parents would like to develop.
When you're consciously using praise to change behavior, the key is noticing and praising the behavior promptly, specifically, and precisely so that it occurs again and can be praised again. We want repeated practice to lock in the habit, and praise helps that to happen.
To make praise effective:
1. Be specific about the behaviors you want. Explain to yourself, first, and then to your child what the specific behavior is you want to develop. Vague commands like "be nice" or "show respect" are too general. Rather, say, "When you're playing with your sister, keep your voice down and don't take her toys" or "When you talk to Grandma, keep your body calm and don't make that obscene gesture Grandpa taught you." When you see the desired behavior, praise it specifically and enthusiastically (the younger the child, the more enthusiastic you should be): "You stayed in your seat all through dinner and you used your inside voice. That's great!"
2. Identify a small number of behaviors. Start with no more than two or three behaviors you want to develop in the child. You will be able to replace them later with new behaviors once these first few are developed. Remember, the reward does not produce the results—rather, you want to encourage repeated practice of the behaviors, or of samples or approximations of these behaviors. You want to focus on getting a couple of behaviors locked in as a habit, then move on to the next ones.
3. Model the behaviors you want. Show the child exactly what the behavior would look like. Even if she "knows," it will help if you demonstrate. Then have the child do it and praise her for whatever parts she copied correctly from you. If you see other people in everyday life—while you are at the store with your child or out to dinner or hanging out—point out the desirable behavior you just saw. Other people can be used as models if you punctuate what you see with your comments and approval.
4. The key is repetition, so practice. We reward behavior in order to encourage repetition, which is called reinforced practice. If your child is already occasionally doing the behavior you want, systematic praise can lock it in as a habit. If the child does not do the behavior yet in the course of normal life, practice it in pretend, gamelike circumstances. You do it, have her do it, and praise.
Alan E. Kazdin, who was president of the American Psychological Association in 2008, is John M. Musser professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University and director of Yale's Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly.