Motivating Children Without Rewards

Written by: Vanessa LoBue, Ph.D.

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Have you ever tried to change your child’s behavior by offering him a reward? Offered dessert if your child would just sit still and eat her dinner? Offered a toy if he would willingly go to his doctor’s visit without protest? Used sticker charts or financial incentives to encourage good behavior or good grades in school? In all of these cases you’re using a classic learning technique in psychology called operant conditioning. The logic behind it is quite intuitive—a behavior that is rewarded is more likely to be repeated. Operant conditioning has been used to teach animals like dogs and rats, as well as humans, even babies. And it works; in fact, it works really well.

Source: Abigail Batchelder/Flickr

The problem is how it works. What this type of reward system does is teach an individual to expect a reward in exchange for a certain behavior. The danger is that if you stop rewarding the behavior, there’s a good chance it will go away. Another potential danger is that if you use it with your children, eventually when you ask them to do something, they might respond with “what will you give me for it,” or “what’s in it for me?” Perhaps most importantly, research suggests that providing physical rewards, or what psychologists call extrinsic motivation for doing something, undermines the development of any internal, or intrinsic motivation to do the very same thing. In other words, if children are rewarded for doing well in school, for example, their motivation for learning might be completely based on receiving rewards, and not by any inherent appreciation for knowledge.

Decades of research support this idea. In one of the most classic studies on the topic, researchers asked college students to work on a puzzle while in the lab. Half of the students were told that they would be paid for doing the puzzle, while the other half were not told they’d be paid. After a short break, the college students were left alone to do whatever they wanted, and they had the option of continuing to work on the puzzle or to do something else. Which group do you think worked on the puzzle for longer? Contrary to what you might expect, the students who were not paid were the ones who voluntarily kept working on the puzzle. The researchers concluded that paying the students, and thus providing an extrinsic reward for their work, diminished their intrinsic motivation to do the puzzle (Deci, 1971).

Similar findings have been found with children. In another classic study, researchers presented preschool-aged children with a fun drawing activity where they were allowed to play with a set of attractive markers—an activity that children typically enjoy. One group of children was then told to play with the markers in order to receive a certificate with a gold seal and ribbon on it. In two other conditions, children either received no reward, or they were given the reward as a surprise after they played with the markers, and were not told beforehand that they would receive any certificate. Children who expected to receive the reward for playing with the markers were significantly less interested in playing with the markers afterwards, whereas interest in playing with the markers remained consistent for children in the other two groups (Lepper, Greene, & Nisbett, 1973).  

Although these studies are now decades old, they’ve stood up as classics over time, and in an analysis of over 100 studies like these, researchers have consistently found that rewards undermine intrinsic motivation for a variety of tasks, many of which are interesting and typically fun to do (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999). That doesn’t mean that rewards should never ever be used with children; instead, they should just be used strategically. If you are trying to teach children something important that you want them to take with them for years and years, rewards are probably a bad idea.

A reward in exchange for grades or accomplishments in school is a good example. In education, researchers have found that intrinsic motivation is related to what they have called learning goals, or motivation to learn for the sake of learning, whereas extrinsic motivation is associated with performance goals, or learning in the pursuit of evaluation, or a good grade; in essence, a reward (Heyman & Dweck, 1992). Giving children rewards for doing well in school only reinforces extrinsic motivation for learning and hinders enthusiasm for its inherent value.

Another example is using rewards, or in this case, a lack of punishment, for good or moral behavior. For example, in several studies examining how to promote truthfulness in children, researchers have found that telling children stories that emphasize the negative consequences of lying are not effective in promoting honesty (Lee, Talwar, McCarthy, Ross, Evans, & Arruda, 2014). Likewise, in a recent study where children heard a story about a character who stole a cookie and later lied about it, children who said that the character in the story should tell the truth most often had parents who do not punish their children when they tell the truth about breaking a rule (Smith, & Rizzo, 2017).

Together this research suggests that providing children with a reward for a behavior is almost like telling them that the behavior itself is not much fun. So if you want to promote intrinsic motivation—if you want to teach your kids that learning in school or helping others are enjoyable in and of themselves—using rewards might be the wrong strategy. Again, that doesn’t mean rewards are always bad. When I was potty training my son, we showered him with jelly beans and praise when he had a successful trip to the bathroom. Teaching my son to have intrinsic motivation to pee in the toilet isn’t something we were necessarily concerned about, since eventually, everyone learns to do it. The same could be true for the types of chores that take a little bit of extra effort. For example, it might not be such a horrible thing to provide some type of monetary reward for bigger chores, since let’s be honest, how many of us are intrinsically motivated to clean the garage? But for smaller chores that you expect your children to do every day, like making the bed or cleaning up their dirty dishes, providing a reward could backfire. In the end, it’s important to use rewards strategically, and be careful not to shower children with gifts for doing things that they might otherwise learn are intrinsically valuable.