Health and Reward for Kids: Striking a Balance
Is giving a child a treat for a job well done a reward or bribery? This is a hot debate among parents, teachers, psychologists and others with vested interests in the well-being of children. Some feel rewards undermine motivation and are nothing more than flat out bribery, actually encouraging negative behaviors by reinforcing them. Others strongly believe rewarding children builds work ethic, instills a sense of pride in doing something well, and provides positive reinforcement for doing a task correctly.
On one side of the argument is the staunch belief that offering rewards, especially edible sugary ones, can lead to multiple negative effects, including health risks such as weight gain, cavities, increased risk for type II diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol levels. Rewarding with candy or desserts can lead to emotional eating, which can then further perpetuate those health risks. Further, rewarding with sweets can encourage an appetite for sugar and overall poor eating habits, ultimately leading back to increased risk to their physical well-being. In addition to the negative health aspects, many also see rewards as a way to get children to stop a negative behavior, such as whining, instead of encouraging a positive one in the first place.
The opposite side of the pendulum is the idea that rewarding children is a positive consequence for doing the right thing. When done properly, rewards are an incentive and motivation to encourage good decisions and appropriate behaviors.
To expand further, let’s discuss the difference between bribery and rewarding children for their very different outcomes.
Bribery most often happens during a time of duress or crisis. Think of it as desperate negotiating to get a negative behavior to stop immediately. For example, your child is pitching a holy temper tantrum in the mall. You absolutely must complete your shopping for a wedding gift, a hostess gift, and a new dress for a bridal shower you are attending in less than three hours. It is mandatory that they quit screaming and allow you to finish your shopping so that you can get home, shower, do your hair and makeup, wrap the gifts, and prepare for the babysitter (whew!).
You are likely to bribe them with whatever they want if they’ll just stop the behavior NOW. Lo and behold, the cookie from the food court works, they quiet down, and you get your shopping done. The problem with this in the long run is that you didn’t control the situation, your child manipulated it. They got exactly what they wanted, when they wanted it, and you were played. This will likely become a strategy they’ll use again because it worked so well. But it doesn’t modify their behavior in a positive way; it reinforces negative action.
Rewards, on the other hand, are not discussed and negotiated in the heat of the moment. Ideally, tangible rewards are laid out ahead of time and are an incentive for appropriate behaviors. They are concrete “payments” for following through with what is previously laid out in your expectations, much along the lines of adults receiving a paycheck for doing their work. Instead of being a bribe to stop a negative behavior, it is their “paycheck” for doing the right thing. When coupled with your praise and encouragement, rewards can be highly effective in promoting similar behaviors in the future.
Rewarding children the right way.
For a reward system to work, some thought and planning must go into it. Together parent and child can create a list of possible rewards to lend credibility to the reward system and help motivate the child to earn them. Rewarding children can range from a special activity with a parent, to a sweet treat, or a favorite outing. The key is to balance the reward system with conversations about appropriate behaviors, teaching and modeling the expectations to earn the rewards, and keeping the rewards reasonable in both frequency and cost. If the reward isn’t earned on these expectations, it should not be given, or the system will be invalid and ineffective.
With positive verbal reinforcement and firm boundaries, a reward system can be a powerful tool to help shape your child’s behaviors. It can help instill motivation, purposeful intent, and acceptable social skills that can be carried over into all aspects of a child’s life.
Gwen Lewis is a writer who lives in California. She has been in the fashion and health industry for years and loves writing on the topic to give tips from experience. In her free time, she loves to stay active and has just taken on learning how to surf. For more, visit her online portfolio here.