Companies are spending millions to research what incentives motivate employees to give their best. Fitness and dieting gurus use scientific knowledge to keep people working toward their health goals. As a society, we tend to be more accepting and knowledgeable about the use of external motivators for adults than we are for children. The subject of rewarding children can be a confusing one.
Almost three decades ago, a book called Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn questioned the use of everything from gold stars and grades to praise, defining them as forms of bribery that would hypothetically diminish a person’s performance. Now the very idea of rewards for children can be tainted by the fear of bribery.
Bribes are rewards given spontaneously in reaction to a situation. A parent offers a child a cookie to stop throwing a tantrum in a store. The learning is simple: public tantrum equals cookie. This association can lead to behavioral extortion and all kinds of embarrassing situations.
Planned rewards, on the other hand, can effectively dissolve old habits and help children face challenges with courage. Rewards don’t have to be big. The right incentive can motivate a child to get ready quickly in the morning, enter a classroom without a fuss, or finish homework on time.
Motivators aren’t just for individuals. Siblings who are in the habit of fighting can be offered a reward for consistently working things out peacefully. The incentive brings them together toward a common goal. A family can work quickly to clean house in order to leave time in the day for an adventure. Classes sometimes put “gems” in a jar each time students cooperate or reach out to help each other. They have a party when the jar is full.
When children are already inspired, rewarding isn’t necessary and may discourage internal motivation. But when there isn’t motivation and the task feels hard, external incentives can get children going in a successful way until they build a new positive habit.