Save Your Stars: Avoiding Reward Junkies

by Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE

star chartMany parents use "behavior modification" programs, such as rewards, sticker charts or token systems to teach children skills, get children to take on responsibilities, or curb an unwanted behavior.

Unfortunately, over 30 years of long-term studies with adults and children by distinguished researchers as Alfie Kohn conclusively show that these programs may appear to have positive short-term results but are consistently ineffective and often counter-productive long-term.

These negative long-term outcomes include:

  • Performance declines over time because people only work for the incentive or reward, not because they see value in the tasks they are doing.
  • When the incentives are gone or if people lose interest in the reward, motivation stops.
  • If the rewards don't keep increasing, motivation decreases.
  • People try to take short cuts to find the easiest way to finish the task to get the reward, rather than doing the best job possible.
  • People can be more easily manipulated and led. With children, this potentially increases their risk of being tricked by adults who try to offer them toys or candy to do what they want them to do.
  • In real life, people do not get “paid” for every task they do. There are many things we do because they are the right thing to do, because we feel good when we do our best or help others, or because they simply need to be done, such as laundry, cooking and dishes! This internal motivation has an endless source that is not dependent on someone else giving us something. Most importantly, the long-term results are always positive.

Use Charts to Track Goal Achievement

Behavior charts that get a quick fix but have negative long-term results are structured like this:

  • The adult sets up the system and imposes it on the child.
  • The adult focuses on the reward as the reason they give for the child to do the task.
  • The child only does the task to get the reward, sticker or prize.
  • Multiple children may compete to see who can win the reward (with all others being losers).
  • The adult decides if the child was good or did the task.
  • The reward is tangible and given by the adult.

With just a few changes, you can use a similar but distinctly different process that gets short term results and exclusively positive long-term results. Just tweak it to be a "goal" or "to-do reminder" chart that operates like this:

  • The child helps set up the system and create the chart. Pre-literate children can use pictures.
  • The adult focuses on the intrinsic value of doing the task as the reason they give for the child to do the task.
  • The child does the task to learn a new skill, accomplish a goal, improve oneself, help others, or some other internal benefit.
  • The entire process is positive. There is no competition and no demerit points. The focus is on the child doing his or her personal best.
  • The child checks off what he or she finishes.
  • The reward can be intangible, such as giving descriptive encouragement (not praise). Tangible rewards can be presented as a "celebration."

If another adult, such as a teacher or therapist, imposes an incentive or reward system on your child, ask questions to help your child see the intrinsic value of learning whatever the program will be "paying" them to do. Then, if they do participate, you both will know the child isn't doing it just for the reward.

External motivators produce children and adults who expect rewards for every little accomplishment. This expectation is unrealistic and such dependency on rewards is unhealthy. By shifting our focus from external rewards to internal motivation, we can help our children become self-motivated and develop cooperative, helpful attitudes.

Get more information about this topic from Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE, second-generation parent educator, president of Parent's Toolshop® Consulting, and author of 100+ practical parenting resources, including the award-winning book, The Parent's Toolshop at Parent's Toolshop® Consulting, Ltd.

Copyright © Jody Pawel. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.