Why I Don’t Like Rewarding Children

I recently read something interesting about reward systems: The greater the reward for an activity, the more we’re programmed to believe we dislike the activity.

For instance, 2 groups of people were told to pick up rubbish in a park. One group was paid more than the other, and then both groups were asked how much they enjoyed the activity. The study found that the group which got paid more found the activity less enjoyable.

So the more someone is willing to reward us for something, the more we must dislike doing it right?

Probably. But does it apply to children? Well, in a childcare environment, I can’t exactly force children to go around picking up rubbish. And there’s not exactly a lot to offer them in terms of rewards either, nor can I survey them at the end!

Nonetheless, here are some of the experiences I’ve had with reward systems:

Reward Finished? Good Behaviour’s Finished Too!

The children were asked to sit down nicely, and whoever sat the nicest would be allowed to feed the fishes. One child who is normally very “strong-willed” thus sat extremely well, and was given the reward.

As soon as she had fed the fishes however, she started being disruptive and  challenging, and was put in time out within minutes!

Stickers, Pee And Poo

A less isolated incident would be a child’s toilet training experience, where he would be rewarded with stickers if he did well. This led up to the point that he would be eager to go to the toilet, and as soon as he’d performed his “task”, he would immediately demand a sticker.

Meanwhile, at home, not only did he have frequent accidents, but he actually hid under a table to do a poo!

Please feel free to share any success stories of your own though. On a separate note, the children actually enjoy picking up rubbish, because they like putting things in the bin.

I know, I’m not a big fan of either punishment OR rewards, so how do I get children to listen? I like the methods in the punishment article for instilling self-discipline, but it’s a gradual process which takes a lot of patience and effort. At least it feels like I’m building a proper relationship with the children, rather than just constantly threatening or bribing them.

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24 responses to this post.

  1. Mark, I can understand what you are going through… Now the child needs a reward to motivate them to do things (just like your point #1). But this form of materialistic rewards is just a temporary measure. You have to also instill to the child that rewards also come in the form of non-materials such as a clap, a praise or a pat on the shoulders for them to feel good.
    I am not a big fan of reward and punishment too. I like Vygotsky’s social development theory on the reward and punishment – speaking about scaffolding approach. And i prefer giving children choices or the Real choice to control their behaviour.
    I like your opinion on building a realationship with the children … well, when the children are your friend they will listen and cooperate too.
    My successful story … I have to admit I do bribe the children with stickers when I can get them to listen or cooperate. But mostly, I apply the real choice approach. For example: In order for the children to accomplish their task, I will tell them that they can spend extra 10 minutes at the play area if they complete it fast or they can spend the whole day doing the task. So at the end most of them get the extra 10 min. However, I am speaking from the preschool level (5-6 years old). Have not got much experience in childcare though…
    Great Sharing… Will hear from you again on your approach


  2. Posted by Audrey Lee on 18 November, 2009 at 11:17 am

    Hi Mark, the method I like to use for instilling discipline is giving ‘positive reinforcements’ (i.e. highlighting only the desired or good behaviour), eg. when a two-yr-old used the potty correctly, I would say “Sally, you have used the potty today, good girl!” If there’s opportunity, I would praise the child in front of her peers.

    When reprimanding a child, I would go down to her eye level so that eye contact is established and the child is listening to what I am saying.

    I am not for bribing or giving stickers, etc. Like Danielle, I like to give options or real choices so that the child has some autonomy and will not feel pressured, eg. during a story telling session, if the child doesn’t want to sit on the floor or be with all the rest of the children, she can sit on a chair or lie on a throw cushion, etc within hearing distance. I would then encourage her to carry her chair or cushion nearer to me.

    I agree that modifying a behaviour needs time and is a gradual process, we need to be consistent and show genuine interest in the child. I think, we will get better in handling discipline problems as we deal with more children, one method may suit one child but not another.


    • Yes, I really think during story time the children shouldn’t all be expected to sit there like statues. I’d even go as far as saying if they’re not interested in stories at the time, you really can’t (or at least shouldn’t) force them!

      I “went down to eye level” the other day…and a child behind me slipped on a carpet and banged her face on a table…


      • Posted by Audrey Lee on 21 November, 2009 at 3:45 pm

        Ha,ha,ha! Hai-yo, don’t you know that early childhood educators must have a ‘360 degree’ vision or eyes at the back of their head? Poor girl, hope she is okay…


        • Well, I did turn around just in time to see her falling. She was crying, but I managed to calm her down and besides a bump on her cheek, she was alright. I had to sign as a witness on an Incident Form though, second one on that day! Really wasn’t happy about it.

          I forgot how much I like calming down the younger children, by distracting them. Makes me feel as though I’m so good with children. 🙂 It doesn’t work as much with the age group I’m in though, so I hardly ever get to go “OH MY GOD WHAT’S THAT” anymore.


  3. Posted by Audrey Lee on 21 November, 2009 at 7:32 am

    Your remark on “reward finished? Good behaviour’s finished too!” is related to extrinsic motivation, ie. the desire to do something is driven by an external factor (Skiiner’s theory), hence when the external factor is stopped or becomes unattractibve, the old behaviour returns. I think this applies to everyone not only children…


    • Yup, rewarding is a passion killer. Even an activity we like will be seen as just a process to get through to get get the reward.

      Maybe if I started rewarding them for doing bad things, they’ll lose interest in doing the bad things once I take the rewards away? 🙂


      • Posted by Audrey Lee on 21 November, 2009 at 3:53 pm

        Good one. I think it will work even better if you offer them an unattractive reward! They might not even bothered to repeat the bad behaviour.


        • Hm…an unattractive reward…

          Whoever doesn’t sit down nicely will be reward with wearing a 10kg weight vest? =-P


          • Posted by Audrey Lee on 22 November, 2009 at 9:57 am

            I think you will enjoy working with children (you’ve made the right switch). You hv turned an unattractive reward into a punishment – remember how prisoners are forced to wear weights at their ankles? It’s difficult to draw a line on how to reward children… hence, Rule #n: Don’t reward children.

          • Ooo oooo…. my Ben is 10kg now but too bad we’re so far apart else I can sponsor my child for this… 😛

  4. I do enjoy working with children, hehe.

    I wonder if I’d reward my own children?

    So what if they’ll grow up spoiled, rotten and shallow?

    As long as they’re happy right? 🙂


  5. Posted by p a t t on 23 November, 2009 at 3:04 am

    so how do you motivate someone without a reward?

    its hard to motivate anyone nowadays by saying – yes – please do this so that you conform to social norms and make it easier on everyone else right?

    lolz – your OH MY GOD WHAT’S THAT still works on adults at times 🙂


    • Only on the more gullible ones. 🙂

      The room I’m in just put up a Good Behaviour Board. Basically 3 categories: good manners, tidiness and helpfulness. Done once a day, and a child who wins an award gets a little colourful print out with their name to show off to their parents.

      It’s actually had a positive effect on some of the children, mostly on being tidy. It’s only been the second day though, so it’s yet to be seen how long it’ll take them to tire of it, especially if it’s done every single day.


      • Posted by p a t t on 26 November, 2009 at 1:21 am

        that’s quite cool 🙂

        if the same kid keeps winning everyday – then bosan la. If not – it should last awhile yet 🙂


        • I have a feeling Bella will be winning quite often, as she’s in every single day.

          You’d also expect the same kids to win wouldn’t you? If you’re the most polite kid in class, that’s not really going to change from day to day.


  6. Full-time Mummy: You mean as a “negative reward” to other children, you’re volunteering to strap your 10kg son to them? =-P


  7. Patt: Exactly ^_^


  8. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mark Lim, Melissa Cousley. Melissa Cousley said: Informative article…funny commentary! RT @EarlyChildcare Why I Don’t Like Rewarding Children http://bit.ly/8c8TZL […]


  9. Interesting, especially since it seems from personal experience that reward systems are encouraged so heavily in the classroom. I’ve been asked repeatedly to implement them with our special needs students to help with behaviour and attention to task.


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