I recently read an article in a parenting magazine by a frustrated parent who’d had enough of using stickers as a reward. In desperation, he decided to go “old school” and insisted that his child go to bed because he said so and not because she was getting a sticker.
As a parent, I understand that frustration. And as a clinical social worker specializing in kids, teens, and families, I often hear from parents that they feel like they’re bribing their children for good choices and good behaviors. They often feel like their kids should make good choices simply because it’s the right thing to do.
But as parents, we also need to realize that children aren’t born knowing what to do. Like most things in life, they learn by experience, natural consequences, and parental guidance. When we insist that children do something just because it’s the right thing to do, and then we show that we’re frustrated when they refuse, we’re giving attention to their negative behavior. The attention for the negative behavior rewards that behavior, and it increases. That also sets up the dreaded power struggle, and then children are much more likely to refuse what you want.
Repeated studies show that rewards are effective in teaching behaviors to children. Notice that I didn’t say that rewards are effective in making children do what they should every time (nor are they the only way to teach a child), but rewards do work when used consistently. Learning is a process of trial and error, and kids have to make some of the errors. But in the long run, rewards help in two scenarios — to help a child learn a new behavior, and to influence a child who knows a behavior but refuses to choose it.
A reward is different from a bribe. If the child has to do something before getting what he wants, it really is a reward. Follow the “First, Then,” rule developed by Dr. Carolyn Webster Stratton, creator of “The Incredible Years” parenting program. Here’s an example: “First you clean your room, and then you can have a cookie.” If, however, the child gets what he wants without performing the desired behavior first, there’s no true incentive to make the good choice. That’s when it becomes a bribe.
Here’s the toughest part of using a reward system. If your child chooses not to earn the reward, you have to let them do that. If you try to force them to do what you want anyway, it’ll undermine the reward system, it’ll give attention to the negative behavior, and it’ll set up — here it is again — the dreaded power struggle. If your child chooses not to do what you want, he’ll only learn your lesson if he experiences the natural consequences of his choice.
Here’s an example: “I know you want to go to the movies with your friend, but you chose not to clean your room, so you chose not to go. If you’d still like to go, first you clean your room, and then you can go to the movie.” And that’s all you say. You’ve set your boundary clearly, you’ve offered the child the chance to earn the reward, and you’re not going to give any attention to the child’s attempts to argue, because that attention will — you’ve got it — just encourage more of that negative behavior.
Children will test this approach because they have to test it; otherwise, they’d never learn that you mean what you say. If you stay steady and true to the “First, Then,” rule, your child will eventually learn that making even worse choices won’t get them what they want, and that’s when they’ll start choosing the reward. This process is called an “extinction burst.” It’s also known as, “Things get worse before they get better.” But things do get better.
Parents also worry that they’ll have to reward their children to the end of time. That’s not true, but it seems logical. What actually happens, though, is that you reward a positive behavior every time until it becomes consistent. At that point, you reward the behavior every now and then to reinforce it. (Training a dog works much the same way, but we don’t tell the kids that.) Again, repeated studies show that this approach is effective in creating true, lasting change.
As for the writer in that parenting magazine who’s had it with stickers, I imagine he’s preaching to the choir. Lots of parents can’t stand them. Parents hate finding stickers on the walls, on the bumper of the car, on the bumper of the dog … but the reward you use doesn’t have to be stickers. It just has to be something that the kid really wants — his currency, so to speak. My guess is that the stickers didn’t mean as much to the writer’s child as the attention she got for not going to bed, and that’s why the stickers didn’t work. If the attention is what the child wants, I’d suggest a routine of snuggling in bed with Dad reading a book at bedtime before settling in for the night. That might just do the trick.
(Carl Grody, LISW-S, specializes in child, adolescent, and family therapy at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington, Ohio. Carl’s a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program, and he’s also the family therapy columnist for Columbus Parent magazine. For an appointment with Carl, call 614-477-5565.)