Why Giving My Teens Rewards—Even for the Little Things—Works for Our Family
Experts are split on the long-term effects of the reward-based parenting strategy.
Soon the first report cards will be coming home with our kids, and we will be attending parent-teacher conferences. My children have never been straight-A students, and the likelihood of that happening is extremely remote.
While they always manage to get their work done, my oldest has handed in a few late assignments over the years and seems to struggle with school. It doesn't hold his attention, and well, he kind of hates it.
I can't say I blame him. I was the same kind of student. I couldn't wait for the bell to ring every day so I could get out of there. I don't learn well when I sit and listen. I need to be up and moving. My soon and I are both visual learners. He showed the signs early—just seeing him at preschool I knew he might struggle to live up to his potential in school.
But I do remember when I was in fifth grade and struggling with math, and my dad promised me a new bike if I got an A by the end of the year. You better believe I worked as hard as I could, and on the last day of school, I had my A and a brand new red 10-speed bike waiting for me in the yard.
While I've never pressured my kids to be at the top of their class, I do encourage them to do their best. If their best is average, I'm OK with that. But there have been a few times they have gotten average or really good report cards, and their teachers have said how pleasant they are in class and that they really do try hard.
As a reward I take them out and buy them something special they've been wanting.
I know some parents and experts don't agree with this, and I've heard some tell their children they expect them to do their best and don't believe in rewarding them for doing something they should be doing anyway. The Atlantic referred to this phenomenon as a “reward economy,” “which promotes a transactional model for good behavior. Children come to expect a reward for good behavior and are hesitant to ‘give it away for free’.”
For me and my family, I've found (in moderation) it can be incredibly motivating for my kids to be rewarded when they get better than their normal grades.
I do think the bike I got in fifth grade has a lot to do with it. That year I pushed myself harder than I ever had; it was really difficult for me, but the self-confidence I gained that year was irreplaceable.
When they've done something really nice for each other or helped me out a lot when I was sick, I like to treat them to an ice cream or a special lunch out.
Do I expect my kids to act a certain way and be respectful and kind to others and help out when they should? Of course I do, but I also believe they should be rewarded for doing hard things, or special accomplishments, not just when they go above and beyond. It's my way of showing them I see them. After all, actions speak louder than words.
I know as an adult I need that type of motivation in my life. I'm more likely to eat right and exercise if I have something fun planned after wards. It can be something as little as a new nail polish or a lunch out with a friend. We all need little things in life to look forward to, and our teens are no different.
I don't believe they need a trophy or special recognition just for showing up in life, and I realize many people feel if you do that you are raising entitled kids who believe they are owed something, but it works for us.
And there’s evidence it works. An article published in Slate explains: "The more your child does the good things you reward him for—tidying up, using a fork, stifling a tantrum—the more routine that behavior becomes. And, eventually, it just becomes part of who he is."
“Rewards given to improve a specific behavior are needed for only a few weeks or months, and then you move on to your next goal,” said clinical psychologist David Anderson to Slate.
Many parents are afraid if they start rewarding, their children will only do nice things, act appropriately, or try really hard if they get something out of it, but I haven't found that to be the case with my three kids.
It has instilled better practices and values in them because of the way it makes them feel inside and the way others treat them because of their good behavior and effort.
Sure, the reward gives them motivation, but the results are so positive rewards aren't needed all the time.
Which reminds me, I am going to schedule a pedicure after that race I signed up to do this weekend. It will make me run faster knowing I have a nice, relaxing treat to look forward to when I am done.
Katie Bingham-Smith lives in Maine and is a full-time freelance writer. She's writes about all things parenting, food, and fashion.