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It was one of those proud mama moments. I was watching my little son standing at the sink with a group of adult volunteers, wiping dishes with a tea towel and chattering away (probably inviting them to play science trivia with him or explaining the merits of his latest Pokemon card.)

After the last mug had been placed in the dish rack, I scooped up him in a hug, and told him about how much everyone appreciated his hard work.

He blinked and asked politely: “What reward do I get?”

Darn you, reward chart.

As a behaviour therapist and a mom, my home has been my laboratory and I’ve experimented with all kinds of treatments to see what works best for my kids. Some of it has been wildly successful, and sometimes it has backfired in spectacular ways.

Fortunately, you can learn from my mistakes, and I’m happy to make some suggestions about what to do the next time you are considering using Ye Olde Reward Chart.

First of all, I want to give the reward chart the respect it is due. I’ve seen some beautiful behaviour interventions based on reward charts, and it sure beats some of the alternatives, such as nagging, threatening, complaining, or simply giving up. There has also been some very solid scientific research supporting the use of the reward chart, and the Grandfather of the Science of Token Economies (aka reward charts) is Dr. Alan Kazdin, who did so much of the basic and applied research on reward charts that he wrote a book to help parents deal with defiant behaviour, based it largely on reward systems, and named it The Kazdin Method.

The reward chart does one thing especially well: it focuses attention on the positive. That works for both children and parents. For us parents, a reward chart helps to highlight the “DO” when we are tempted to pay too much attention to “DON’T.” It reminds us to set up opportunities for success in a friendly and mindful way. It reminds parents to acknowledge a child’s  accomplishments as often as possible.  It also helps parents something very concrete to do, as a replacement for unhelpful strategies like yelling, complaining, or dealing out punishments.

For kids, a reward chart helps to focus their attention on the behaviour we *want* them to perform. The visual display is a good reminder, and the “prize” can be a reasonable short-term substitute for the positive outcome of the behaviour (e.g., brushing your teeth earns stickers, because children don’t get to enjoy “not having cavities” in the short-term.)

All this is great stuff… how could rewards be harmful?

Do reward charts have a down side?

Even if a reward chart works, there are some other questions worth asking, such as “What happens when the reward chart ends?” Does the behaviour become a habit, or does it become yesterday’s news? What happens to values, motivation, curiosity, and self-initiative?

The answer has been the subject of intense research and controversy for decades, and this blog post is not going to end any of those wars, but there are some clues in the research literature.

It turns out that the answer to the question “Are rewards harmful?” depend on the answers to some other questions, such as “Was this an interesting activity in the first place?” “Do I need a creative response or a correct response?” and “How big a reward are we talking about?”

    10 ways to make sure your rewards don’t backfire

    I’ve written this list for you based on my own experience as a mom and a therapist, and I’ve also found a lot of great references to psychological studies on motivation here.

    1) Rewarding an already-interesting activity can hurt motivation in the long run. 

    If your child is already curious or willing to participate in an activity, then you probably don’t need to use a reward chart to keep it going. Tangible rewards can pull attention away from the real enjoyment and value of a task.

    2) To build a positive attitude toward a task, verbal praise may work better than rewards

     If your goal is just to get the activity *done* then a reward chart might work really well, but if your goal is to help your child *appreciate* a task, some studies suggest that you are better off using enthusiastic positive feedback.

    3) Really enticing rewards can be distracting if the task requires concentration

    If you are asking your child to really focus, it might seem natural to offer a reward, but a really big shiny prize in full view can actually make it harder for your child to get that task completed (maybe because they are busy daydreaming about the amazing reward!)

    4) Kids may find it demotivating when the rewards stop

    If the reward is the only source of motivation, it can be hard to maintain a habit after the reward system runs its course. The key here is to help kids find a different *why* to replace the external reward, and to add as much natural enjoyment as possible. 

    5) The repetition can be sickening… sickening… sickening…

    Repeating the same activity over and over again can be a drag. Even a reward, received over and over, can lose appeal. Watch out for boredom and drudgery, so the activity (and the reward) doesn’t become something your child starts to dread.

    6) Rewarding completion doesn’t do much in the long run (but rewarding quality is actually helpful)

    If you set up a reward for completing a task, you might not always get a great performance, just one that is a “good enough.” However, rewards for excellent performance can actually help a child learn to enjoy the activity (because achievement can be a potent natural motivator!)  

    7) We might accidentally reward the wrong behaviour

    “Did you brush your teeth? Let me smell your breath! Hmmm…” When we set up an incentive, a kid is motivated to get it, but he or she might also be motivated to bend the truth or cut corners to get that reward. Be sure to check to see what behaviour your reward chart is encouraging, because it might not be what you hoped for!

    8) Not getting a reward can trigger a big emotional outburst (and a whole lot of ruckus you weren’t asking for)

    If you set up a reward that comes with a time limit, or if your child might forfeit the reward for misbehaviour, then there is a chance that the opportunity for reward is lost. Some children will be able to learn from their mistakes and accept responsibility. However, for other children, losing a hoped-for reward can lead to tantrums, begging, aggression, and meltdowns, not a valuable lesson learned.  Avoid this headache, and try to make sure there’s *always* a chance to do better.

    9) Kids may spend less time doing other things that are worthwhile

    Even if your reward chart works to increase the time and energy your child spends on a target activity, what about the other important things in life? Is there a risk that your child may start to ignore important activities that don’t earn a reward?

    10) Kids may do way TOO MUCH of the task you are rewarding

    Uh oh. You could become a victim of your own success. Kids are so resourceful, and if filling up a reward chart means running to the potty every ten minutes, or dumping out bins of toys only to clean them up again, they just might try it out! 

    With great power comes great responsibility, right? It’s so hard to find the best way to win your child’s cooperation, especially when they can’t see the big picture. Kids don’t always understand the real consequences of their actions. It’s natural for them to look for the advantage, and we can’t blame them if our strategies backfire.

    By the way, speaking of backfiring, I should tell you the rest of the story, about what happened when my child washed those dishes with the volunteers and then asked for a reward.

    First, I took a deep breath. Then I thought about all the things I value, like being part of a caring community and sharing my gifts with others. I want my child to value those things too, so I explained how the work of other people has been an invisible gift to him every week. I explained that we get good things for free sometimes, so we should give for free too. I added that other people saw him working and noticed how friendly and helpful he was. Then I gave him a big hug and hoped he understood.

    To be continued… 🙂