The Problem with Rewards & Sticker Charts

iStock_000001803807SmallAsk most childcare professionals and experts for their advice on dealing with a tantruming toddler, a picky-eating preschooler or a child who won’t sleep, brush their teeth or tidy their room and they will probably suggest you use some form of reward to encourage the behaviour you would like. The most common reward suggested is the sticker, or reward, chart, though occassionally others are suggested like collecting marbles or coins in a jar or working towards achieving a family treat.

On the surface these rewards seem innocuous enough. The child is happy because they get a sticker, sweet or fun day out and the parents are happy because they get to restore peace to their household and mind. Reward charts and the like are certainly preferable to yelling or smacking a child but they are far from perfect.

When you start to dig deeper into the psychology of rewards, such as sticker charts, you very quickly begin to realise that there is a large amount of science that refutes their use, claiming they are ineffective. Not only do these types of rewards lack in convincing evidence of efficacy, they can also cause more problematic behaviour in the future. For most parents the idea that their well meant sticker chart can create problems in the tween and even teen years is hard to swallow as it is just so alien to what society believes.

Several Psychologists, such as Warneken and Tomasello have studied the effects of rewarding children for a desired behaviour and concluded that a child’s motivation to repeat a task is actually lowered if they have received a reward for the task initially. Meaning that if you constantly reward your child for something now you are effectively reducing the chance for them to repeat that behaviour again unless they are coerced with more rewards.

The use of sticker charts stems from techniques of behaviour modification that have been popular for over half a century, this same knowledge gave us the basis for modern day dog training. There is no denying that while rewards may be helpful in training a new puppy many argue that they are not appropriate to train children.

Rewards such as sticker charts can produce remarkably quick initial results and it can seem therefore as if they are ‘the answer’ for a multitude of parental problems. It is for this reason that they are so popular with the parenting experts seen on TV – these programmes need to show quick and impressive results to draw in an audience. What you don’t see however is what happens six months later when the cameras have long since stopped rolling and the behaviour of the child has likely to have regressed and then some. In a sense, rewards of this form do work, but they work only on a very short term and superficial level. If something seems quick and easy, whatever it is, the chances are it is not particularly effective or without risk.

Rewards such as stickers work by increasing the extrinsic (that is the external) motivation of children. Simply you reward the behaviour you want and ignore that that you don’t. Classical conditioning tells us that this should result in more of the positive behaviour. The major flaw here is that no real change has taken place in the child’s beliefs and personal drives. They are only motivated to behave in a certain way because of the reward on offer, remove the reward and the desired behaviour disappears. Worse than this though, researchers have shown that if you remove the reward then children are even less likely to respond in the way that you want them to than they would originally, before the rewards were used.

If you want to create a real behaviour change in your child that is long lasting and helps them to grow emotionally then this behaviour needs to be intrinsically motivated, that is the child needs to be internally motivated to behave in a certain way. Simply, you want them to do something because they want to do it.

Rewards do not teach children “right from wrong” or help them to develop morals, they merely result in compliance. In a way you can view a reward as a bribe. If you no longer bribe them they won’t behave in the way you want. The compliance that comes from reward charts however does not indicate an internally motivated change has taken place, nor is it long lasting. What starts off as a sticker or a lollipop now may progress to increasing amounts of money as your child ages. Add to this if your child is used to complying then they may be at increased risk of peer pressure as a teen.

What do you do instead? Really it is all about connection and respect. You need your child to want to do something to help you because they want to, because they respect you, because you love them, because they feel good for being helpful and because they know you would do similar for them. This then is intertwined with your every day behaviour and the way you relate to your child. If you constantly yell at, or punish your child they are unlikely to be intrinsically motivated to behave well, if you are compassionate towards them, listen and respond to their needs then they are more likely to want to behave in the way that makes you feel good, because it makes them feel good too. Click here for some ways that you can respond to your child in this manner.


By Sarah Ockwell-Smith – Our resident Baby and Toddler Expert.


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