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  • Writer's pictureElisa Ferriggi

The Problem with Rewards

If you’ve ever attended a mainstream parenting programme or sought advice on a forum or even thought back to what happened in your childhood you’ll be familiar with the advice to use rewards to reinforce positive behaviours (and perhaps even punishments to reduce negative behaviours). Rewards can work for some things, but for others and more so excessive use of rewards can create problems in the long run.

What counts as a reward

Reward charts, stickers, certificates, points, grades, a new toy/ item, an activity, praise and any other incentive system.

In my experience some of the common problems I have seen when a parent – child feedback system is reliant on rewards can mean challenges in relationships, willingness to engage, comply and most devastatingly impacting learning.


When we use rewards as a means to ‘get’ children to comply what happens is we see a new level of resistance come into play as a stand-off for a reward develops. Then we see that children will not just comply, they’ll want to know what they’re going to get for doing whatever the task is. Sometimes this can lead to deciding the reward is not worth doing the task, negotiating something else or more when really it is a simple every day task that just needs doing.


After a while of using rewards (and it doesn’t take long) children create an expectation that there will be a reward for completing tasks. This expectation then leads to challenges as the child can become disappointed, leading to further behavioural issues, for not getting a reward each and every time or to the standard they expected. This traps you in the cycle of then using rewards more frequently and this is where I hear parents say ‘this is the only way’ to get them to do something.


Some may argue that using rewards increases the child’s motivation to do something, the reality is that really the reward is just motivating the child to get the reward not do the task.


Reward based learning can interfere with the child’s natural desire to want to learn something. Intrinsic motivation is what sparks the growth mind-set, curiosity and natural learning developmental curve. When we are using rewards to encourage a child to learn we most likely are ignoring the child’s interests and following an instrumental approach to getting something done… in that situation I encourage you to ask who is this for? What will my child learn from this?

Recognising hidden rewards / misusing rewards

Threats – “If you don’t X, then you won’t Y”

Bribery – “If you do X, then you can have Y”


You may consciously avoid external rewards but notice that you use a lot of praise, verbal praise or natural reinforcers.

It’s OK

Most parents have fallen into the use of rewards because they know no different, have never needed to challenge the system, or have even been on a course that taught you to do it like that. It’s OK, of course we do the best we can with the knowledge that we have at any given time and now I invite you to reflect on the use of rewards in your relationship/ household with children, decide what the outcome is achieving and what they are learning in the long run. If you want to change your approach to support more intrinsic motivation development, independent decision makers and thinkers and spark that natural desire to follow passions and thirst for learning then YOU CAN change it!

If you would like to learn more about how to transition from external rewards to intrinsic motivation you can learn more about this workshop happening on the 2nd March


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