For Parents

Reward points don’t work. Say, what??! Many educators will happily suggest that some form of reward is useful in order to encourage the behaviour you would like to see more of. It’s based on Operant Conditioning, a psychological theory of learning through the consequences of behaviour.

By many accounts, these rewards seem harmless enough. Kids are delighted because they get a treat, day out or new toy and parents are happy because order is restored. Euphemistically called ‘positive reinforcement’….what’s not to like?

When you delve a little deeper into the concept behind rewards, it’s not long before you uncover the research that disproves their effectiveness and exposes its flaws. Rewards don’t teach children real values or develop morals, all that’s happening when you reward a child is quick-fix compliance. No real change has taken place in their core beliefs or personal perspectives. They are only motivated to behave in a certain way because there’s something attractive on offer. It undermines intrinsic motivation.

What is intrinsic motivation?

It refers to behaviour that is driven by internal rewards. That is, you are motivated to engage in a certain behaviour due to naturally occurring satisfaction. Giving rewards too freely, before any hard work has been done, causes young people to become rewards-driven rather than developing internal motivation. We want our kids to take pleasure from the work itself and any outcomes derived from it, rather than the new Lego set promised after you pass the maths test or make your bed every morning for a week.

How do you develop internal motivation in teens?

Connection and Respect

Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Unconditionally. Our kids need to feel loved no matter how they behave or what they achieve. In this way they will feel respected and have the desire to respect you in return. If your prevailing style of parenting is authoritarian, with regular punitive punishments, it’s unlikely they will be inclined to behave as well as if you show consistent compassion.

A sense of mastery

Create opportunities for your young people to feel successful. Anything from tidying their own room to weeding the garden, give them a chance to get it right! There’s no substitute for that feeling of accomplishment, let this be the engine that drives them.

Not all praise is created equal

Focus on the effort rather than the outcome to avoid raising praise junkies. We want them to delight in their endeavours and accomplishments rather than any praise we shower upon them. Better to acknowledge what you’ve seen but not to expressly praise; “I love that you cleaned up your room. It’s spotless!”, much more powerful that “Good job”. Give them a vocab for their positive behaviour; “Now that’s what I call cooperation’’. Finally, show them a little gratitude; “Wow, that’s one less job I’ll need to do tonight. Thank you!”.

Pull down that sticker chart from the fridge and rethink your promise to give them a gift if they do their homework every night! Start creating real behaviour change that will lead to long term success in healthy emotions and positive behaviours. Where are you on the positive reinforcement spectrum?


You might also like…

The Power of Yet

The Power of Yet

Most parents understand that calling a child ‘stupid’ could affect their perception of themselves and adversely affect their attitude of trying something new or challenging. But did you also know...



In my private practice as a therapist several years ago, I was talking with a Year 8 girl. At some point during the conversation, my client looked confused and asked me, “Are you really interested...



Is your teenager really lazy or is there something else going on?Motivation is a desire to accomplish a goal.  People behave in certain ways because of their motivation. It’s one of the most...