Right way of using rewards

William James, American psychologist and philosopher made a very apt observation “The deepest principle of human nature is a craving to be appreciated.” Appreciation makes our heart sing, it signals we have been noticed and our efforts recognized.  Shouldn’t we use more of it instead of guiding our kids with fear based consequences? Now that we have learnt about setting rules and using consequences effectively let’s discuss positive reinforcement i.e. reward in common parlance.

Reward Vs Bribe: Bribe is offered before the work with the sole purpose of getting the work done. Not every task should be bribed as it kills the internal motivation of the child. If you use bribes too often after a while your child may get so habituated that they may start asking “If I do the work what will you give me”. It irks us then but in truth it’s we who have programmed them that way. Reward is given once the work is done. It’s not decided from before and solely depends on the parents/teachers etc. Reward signals to a child that his/her good behavior/efforts have been noticed and are appreciated. Reward boosts the self esteem of the child which bribe can’t achieve as effectively. Reward helps in building authentic connection between parent and child. And most important of all the happiness and gratitude that your child has on receiving reward is priceless. I have offered Gems both as a bribe and reward.  There is so much gratitude, love and happiness when it’s given as a reward that is so heartwarming.

Different types of reward: Material things that can be bought with the use of money is something we all are familiar with. Toys and Candy top the list if you have young children. The material things need not be and should not be expensive always. It need not always be a remote control car even if you can afford it. If you want to gift your child many such cars you could (not that I condone it) but make sure that you don’t always give it as a reward. It could be a balloon, a toffee, children’s magazine, 2 extra gems or few extra cashew nuts. But apart from these there are lot of intangible things that can be used as reward and are more effective in building authentic connection between parent and child. An extra bed time story, 2 more hurls in the air, bubbles time, a game of badminton etc. Experiences like taking your child to a musical concert or Lit fest can also be used as rewards. The beauty of them is that these kind of new experiences aid in better development of brain. If extra TV time and internet games are crossing your mind; please steer clear of it. Remember you don’t want to support unhealthy acts do you? Praise and recognition in themselves are a form of reward and can accompany the above to make them more effective. What can beat an impromptu statement from the father “Let’s all go for an ice-cream. I am so proud of you my son/daughter of the way you helped your mother today.”

Choosing a Reward:  It has to be specific for your child. Something your child values and enjoys. What is reward for one child maybe a throw-away for another? I prefer intangible rewards as they foster communication and connection. When choosing material rewards it should be within your means and you should feel joy in giving it. Reward could also be in form of contributing some money towards a certain goal your adolescent has like getting a tattoo done.

Praise and Recognition:  There is a subtle difference between praise and recognition and to know that makes all the difference.Praise is usually for a person while recognition is of the action or achievements. Recognizing in front of others boosts self confidence significantly.Recognition makes the praise specific. Recognition makes the child understand why he/she is being praised (especially younger children). Praise without recognition isn’t as effective.Sample this “He is a good man vs. He helped a trauma victim yesterday, so generous and kind of him. He really is a good man.”  Which one would you have liked to hear had you been that man? Which one would make similar acts more likely? Which one sounds more genuine and endearing?

When and How: Consistency is the key so recognize the desirable actions regularly thus increasing the probability of them to recur. Recognition is most important and is sufficient in itself. Praise can accompany it but often times it’s the other way round due to our conditioning. You will often say good/ok and stop at that and recognizing the action will take extra effort. If the child has helped you significantly a genuine “Thank You” goes a long way. Here significance should be ascertained from the child’s perspective not yours. Material rewards are not necessary every time and are neither healthy that way. If reward is given every time child starts expecting it and thus are lost the benefits of a reward as discussed in first paragraph. Use your discretion in deciding what should be added to recognition and praise and when. Praise should be genuine else children might develop a false sense of superiority. Don’t offer praise unnecessarily. It will prepare them for handling disappointments in later life effectively. Best results are seen when acts are recognized immediately. Initially it’s difficult to do this especially if it’s a new behavior for us; in that case recognize the action whenever you remember.  Also at times we are not in a place or situation where we can immediately offer praise even if we want to. Remember to praise and recognize later.

Make action the star: This rule is not only for the undesirable actions as explained in “Rules for Effective Use of Punishment”; it is equally pertinent here too. Expand your vocabulary beyond the generic good and bad. Some of the examples could be “You shared your gems with your friends. Good to You shared your gems with your friends, so generous of you.” Or “It’s so kind of you to forgive.” Or “You told papa the truth about breaking the remote, I love your honesty”. I know it is easier said than done. Initially you will struggle with the words as I am struggling now. But results in future will make you happy for making the effort now. Labeling the child always as good boy/ intelligent boy because of his actions can have negative consequences too. Even good labels stick and can be very restrictive. If we keep saying “good boys don’t do that, you are a good boy aren’t you?” for every inappropriate behavior the child may revolt against the idea of being a good boy/girl. I faced that when few days back my son said “I want to bang my toys together and make noise. I am a bad boy and I am going to bang”.  It gave me a different perspective and made me change my approach. Don’t give the impression that good boys/girls do not do anything naughty as it might make them resent being good. Once they start identifying with the bad; consequences can be really dangerous. If we link every desirable behavior to good boy and undesirable behavior to bad boy, child will start resenting being a good boy and there could be dangerous consequence to that.

Conclusion: Appreciation makes us feel our efforts have been recognized and motivates us to put our best forward. Try to do away with bribes and instead choose rewards and consequences. There are many types of reward so you don’t have to restrict yourself to material things. Reward should be custom tailored for your child. Intangible rewards are preferable. Research shows that praise alone is not as effective in changing behavior. Praise genuinely; your children can sense hypocrisy. Label the action not the child and move beyond stock words of good and bad.

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About Dr. Mona Choudhary

After MBBS, I did my MD(Psychiatry) from PGIMER, Dr. RML Hospital, New Delhi now a Centre of Excellence in Mental Health. As a Consultant Psychiatrist I view my clients as persons and not merely an illness to be fixed. I assess and treat various mental health disorders with the goal of making my clients more resilient. My current focus of work is Parental well being and guidance as it can significantly improve quality of life and shape our kids to withstand pressure and excel in their lives.
View all posts by Dr. Mona Choudhary →

20 thoughts on “Right way of using rewards

  1. Very nice article Dr. Mona… personally as a mother of a toddler I feel such articles serve as an important guiding tool in laying right foundation for our kids. Keep enlightening us!

    1. Thank you Darsh. When we as parents become enlightened we can change the world one kid at a time or maybe 2-3 for some. Your expectations are going to push me to write another article soon. you could also like my facebook page parentingmantra, I keep posting tit bits and insights on it, taking my own examples from being a mother or trending media articles. Joyful parenting to you.

  2. This article is an eye opener and gave clarity on Appreciation /Bribe /Reward /praise genuinely and level the action not the child . Kudos to the young author for this series of articles in general and especially for this article . Long way to go for her and parents like me will way for another eye-opener . Thanks

    1. Thank you so much for lavishing praise on me. Your expectation and wait for next article is the motivation for me to sit and write. It took almost 10-12 hours of editing re-editing to finally get it ready to post. Your appreciation makes it count. Thanks again.

  3. Congratulations Mona…it’s a wonderful Article…
    Your suggestions are very useful…it’s make me clear the right way of using rewards and side effect of overdoing the things…

    1. Thanks Pratima. Your asking me when is the next article coming made it come sooner. i really sat through to keep my promise to you. And it feels good to hear that promise has been well delivered.

    1. Thank you very much Sir. You are my role model. You taught me sincerity and selfless care for the patients by example not preaching. Modelling is the way we learn especially kids.

    1. Thanks Abhishek. I am a parent myself. My perspective also comes from seeing patients of depression, anxiety and other mental disorders and kind of working backwards. Even World Health Organization accepts that most disorders begin early.

  4. Very nicely framed.. especially the last paragraph in which you mentioned that we should try with more adjectives instead of sticking to good n bad..

    1. Thanks Deeptika. Yes you have caught on the crux. If we make effort to start applying only this one thing, a profound change will come. It’s a movement that needs to be started at every home.

    1. Thank you so much Sir. Words of encouragement from one of my mentors at RML makes me happy and humbled too. Take care sir

    1. Thank you for taking out time from your busy schedule and reading it.Glad you liked it. My focus is on children but you know same principles can be applied effectively on adults too.

    1. Thanks Monalisa. You are right its difficult to keep in mind all the time, that’s why we need reminders and supportive community. Even if one point is implemented,it will help as a reminder.

  5. Nice article Dr. Mona !
    Anyone feels good if his/her work is appreciated, irrespective of age !
    Hope to see more such articles in near future.

    1. Thank You so much Uncle for your positive feedback. When it comes from someone who himself writes very well, the praise becomes more valuable. Thank you again.

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