Rewards, Reinforcers, and Doing Right by Our Kids


The use of rewards as a means of encouraging our children to behave properly or be productive has been referred to as a “carrot and stick” approach to parenting or teaching. At its most basic, the instruction becomes an “If you do this, then I will give you that”, and conversely, “if you don’t do this you won’t get that”. Token systems, trophies, salary, charts, stickers and stars are all derivatives of this approach. Behavioral psychology supports the belief that rewards or reinforcers will increase the frequency of the rewarded behavior, and that ignoring a behavior will eventually lead to decreasing its occurrence. This approach however, does not include the idea that the reward is defined in advance of the desired behavior; it’s not viewed as a payment or a bribe. The development of appropriate behaviors, values, motivation and perseverance are more likely influenced by two other major forces. One is modeling, and the other is “catch them being good”. The way we as adults behave, in large part becomes the prototype that our children often strive to replicate. The Harry Chapin song,” Cat’s in the Cradle” ends with the phrase,” I’ve grown up just like you dad, I’ve grown up just like you”. The act of becoming “Just like You”, is in itself intrinsically rewarding to a child, and will encourage the continuation of the child’s effort to be like his or her parents (notwithstanding the difficulties of adolescence- a topic to be discussed in a later article).The acknowledgment of behaviors that represent values, motivation, and pro-social choices within the child’s natural environment becomes the “catch them being good” part of the equation. “I liked the way you helped your brother”, “Thanks for helping me with the groceries”, “Good job making your bed” are all examples of social reinforcers that will encourage appropriate behaviors. Toys, money, and electronics are not needed, nor are they necessarily effective in the long run. After all, the list of bigger and better things never ends. The giving of gifts as expressions of our love and appreciation for whom our children are however, is a wonderful and rewarding part of the parenting process, and should not be missed. These are not tools to manage specific goals; rather they are expressions of our admiration and respect for how our children are growing up.

Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.