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Children and rewards: Bribes and other Incentives

Updated on June 27, 2011

Do children need to be bribed?

You want your child to do something extra around the home, maybe a little extra cleanup or sometimes just taking care of their own mess and the first thing out of their mouth is what are you going to give me if I do it, what will I get? They simply refuse to do anything around the house without getting something in return. As a parent, you begin to feel like a cop handling an informant, always needing to provide some kind of payoff every time your child does something worthwhile.

We live in the age of stickers, charts, gold stars and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Children are often encouraged from a young age to do things for rewards. In fact, many kids are reward junkies. They won’t do much of anything without some kind of bribe or reward. If you do A, you will get B. If the whole class gets their science projects completed by Friday, we will have a pizza party. If you earn 20 stars, at the end of the week you can pick a toy from the toy jar. It’s ingrained in our teaching and parenting culture.

When children are very young this can be an effective way to encourage their interest in a variety of tasks that we want them to do. It can also help to further reinforce highly motivated children who were already more than willing to do the task merely for the reward of encouragement and adult attention, or just for personal satisfaction. However, as kids begin to get a little older, they may start to believe they are being offered rewards or bribes for things that really must not be worth doing. As a result, many children try to hold their parents ransom as they hold out for more and more rewards to perform some pretty basic chores or tasks.

Are all chores drudgery?

Often when we give kids rewards we are unintentionally implying a subtle but very insidious message. The message we are giving our children is that there is no inherent value in just doing the task. They think the chores and household work we want them to do is really just drudgery and no one would be willing to do it unless they were getting paid (what do parents do anyway?). Is this really what we as parents want them to believe? That the things that need to get done in our everyday lives should be accomplished only if there is some kind of payoff? First off, maybe we can stop calling them chores and opt for something less negative sounding like household contributions or household tasks.

In the home, children can get a bad attitude about contributing because parents ask their kids to perform tasks that they themselves don’t want to do. The child quickly gets the message from their parents that this is a job that no one really wants to do. Of course, there are always certain jobs we prefer over others, but if there are things that need to get done, there is nothing wrong with children learning to do some of these jobs themselves and learning be proud to make a contribution in the home. If the task itself is not the most enjoyable thing we could ever do (it never is) at least try not to make it worse and instead focus on the underlying values associated with doing a household task. More in this a little later.

When children ask for a payoff, as parents we could always threaten to cut off their TV, video games, computer privileges or something else they love. A parent could say fine don’t do it and I won’t pay for the TV and computer connection after this month. But realistically these types of threats are usually empty threats and ultimately lessen our authority as parents. Besides, if your child does do the job under threat of punishment they are likely to do it with a bad attitude and probably do a poor job.

It's even possible for children to learn to sometimes even like making a contribution around the home! Ok time to clean our rooms, let’s have a race and see how quickly we can pick up all our toys. It’s weeding time, let’s go have some fun and get dirty pulling all those weeds. Let’s see how big a pile we can make this time. Let’s do the recycling. It’s time to make our weekly contribution to mother earth. There is no reason for parents to make every task seem like an unwanted intrusion into our daily lives but often that is more the result of our own attitudes than the attitudes of our children. Sure we may have to push them and prod them a little but not having a negative attitude about it can go a long way.

But children need to just have fun! Don't they?

In our culture there is also a tendency for parents to almost obsessively be concerned about their child’s need for freedom and fun. Most of us believe childhood is about having a good time, playing, and enjoying life. Kids shouldn't be overwhelmed and burdened with adult problems. We can tend to focus too much on this at times though, especially if we as parents have a belief that much of that freedom and fun is lost when we join the work world as adults. Why not let them have their fun before they have to join the daily grind? Being a kid should be about having fun. This is an understandable sentiment. Still, if we focus too heavily on freedom and fun, our kids will miss other important life lessons.

It is true that we do have the need for freedom and fun. Not just kids, adults too. We want to have choices and be able to enjoy our lives and of course we want that for our kids. For some of us, the choices we have and the joy we experience may seem more limited in adulthood, but sometimes that is a matter of perspective. Still, people have other needs as well. As parents we need to be aware of these needs and our children need to be encouraged to do things that help them meet these other needs. We also have the need for mastery and the need for love and belonging. Some would add the need for generosity as well. If we don’t also make the effort to foster these needs in our children, they become unbalanced and fail to understand the intrinsic value in what they are doing.

Children also need love and belonging, power and mastery, and generosity.

If children hear from a young age that they are members of a family and as members of a family we all need to make a contribution, they will understand that their contribution is needed and appreciated. But more than that, they will have a deeper sense of their own sense of belonging. Even in today’s world of luxury and conveniences, we can all pitch in and make a contribution in our homes. When we encourage our child’s need to belong in this way, it helps to balance their need for love and belonging with their other need for freedom and fun.

If we encourage our children to take pride in a job well done, we also help to foster their need for mastery. Everyone in the world has an inner desire to obtain a reasonable degree of personal power. In some people it can be squashed through discouragement or oppressive measures. In others it comes out sideways and they attempt to achieve power through unhealthy unproductive ways. The use of violence, the tendency to argue and fight, the habit of make fun of others and ridiculing them to build ourselves up; these are all misplaced ways of trying to achieve power, but they don’t help us achieve a deeper sense of personal power or mastery.

I don’t know anyone who takes pride in how much conflict they create in their lives or in how good they are at ridiculing others. There may be a few of them out there but I don’t know them. Maybe Simon Cowell from American Idol but even he, I am guessing, takes more pride in many of his other accomplishments. We only truly encourage our child’s need for power and mastery by getting them to take pride in their achievements. There is no crime in putting in our best effort and doing a good job even in the smallest of tasks. Even when no one is watching us. This is a message that benefits children.

In many cultures in the world there is also a strong belief that humans are never truly fulfilled unless they take care of a deeper need to be generous. We can encourage generosity in our children by explaining that it is a value we hold dearly. Of course, we need to be role models ourselves, maybe by volunteering our own time and doing things that are fulfilling but for which we receive no pay. Maybe, we coach a sport, teach a class at a community center, or hand out gift hampers during the holidays. There are so many ways to model generosity for our children. Even in our daily lives, we can take the time to hold a door for someone with their hands full or help a neighbor clear the snow from their driveway. Children learn by watching our deeds and we teach when we share our values by doing.

Children who learn to be generous and giving are learning to take care of a need that will add value throughout their lives. It is a habit that is rewarding but is never done merely for ego gratification or self serving reasons. Children who learn to be giving are learning to take care of a human need at a very deep level. You may notice how so many very successful people, people who seem to have everything they need, often add value to their lives at some point by becoming involved in a charity or starting their own charitable foundations. A cynic might say they are simply doing it to be self-serving, that such endeavors are only goodwill advertising. This may be the case in some instances but many of them lend their name to these charities simply because it gets the charity more attention. The truth is many successful and wealthy people also support charities anonymously. Either way, successful people like many of us are more likely get involved in charities because generosity helps meet a deeper need that isn’t met by any other endeavors.

Finding Fulfillment

If we want to avoid having children who will only make an effort if we bribe them or promise a reward, then we need to start when our children are young. We can encourage our kids to help out around the home because that is what members of a family do. That is how each member can share their value with the family and make a contribution. Encourage them to take pride in doing a job well and doing it so they can achieve personal power in a positive way, not by whining or being defiant, but by making a useful difference. Make simple tasks a game. There is no reason for jobs to always be considered a necessary evil. Make it a fun challenge for your children and they will learn good habits in the process.

It is important that as parents we show our kids work is not a dirty word. Sure they need their fun and freedom, but they also need to balance that with other needs. Actively contributing allows kids to meet their needs for belonging and power, and helps them grow into valuable productive human beings. Sometimes as adults we have a habit of wanting to just be comfortable. We forget about what it is like to challenge ourselves and our children see that. They don’t see the work we did to get to that place of comfort. To be good role models, we often need to get outside our comfort zone and show our kids we can make push ourselves and challenge ourselves as well. When we make work fun, when we show our children that we all need to pitch in, and when we are generous towards others, we  are positive role models for our children.

If children only help out for rewards and pay, when they get older their adult lives will often be unfulfilled. I have known many high achievers who were unsatisfied in the work world because throughout most of their childhood they had thrived on rewards, awards, and accolades. Yet as adults, they were often expected to take pride in their work and do a good job for intrinsic reasons. When no one was around to pat them on the back or tell them how well they were doing they struggled. They felt unappreciated. It’s a slippery slope when rewards become the be all and end all. We can help our children out by encouraging other reasons for them to make a contribution.

When we encourage children to find the value in doing a job well, and doing it to make a valued contribution, they can take pride in themselves. There is nothing wrong with having a pizza party or a trip to get ice cream to celebrate a job well done or as a way to show appreciation for working together as a family. However, the participation of our children in home life should not be contingent upon a promised reward. Often in life people put in a good effort when no one else is watching just because they want to take pride in their work and make a useful contribution. This is called integrity and it’s something we need to teach our children. Scandals like Enron and the banking industry collapse might not be so prevalent if more people made decisions based on integrity and not merely out of self interest. Oops soapbox just broke... I better get down off of it now.


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