How to Motivate Your Child Without Rewards
Written By: Bobbi Jo Gaetz
Rewards can be great, but we don’t want to have to use them all the time to motivate kids to do the things we ask of them. Research has shown that a group of children who were provided extrinsic motivation (that is, rewards) to work on a puzzle stopped working once the rewards were stopped. The children who were not given rewards kept at the task. Rewards can sometimes decrease the enjoyment of an activity. We also want to avoid the trap of having children respond to our directives with, “What am I going to get?” and have to enter into negotiations for every task. What we want children to experience is the thrill of learning a new skill, completing a task, or putting in their best effort. The qualities that lead to success, such as grit, persistence and self-confidence, are not created by requiring rewards, but through practice and sometimes, mistakes or failure.
So, how can we motivate children to do things without rewards? Here are some ideas:
- Make it a game. If you are trying to encourage your child to do something, think about how it could be turned into a game or race. “How many toys do you think you can pick up in 1 minute? I think maybe 3 (underestimate). Let’s find out! Go!” It also helps if you share in the task to encourage participation. You can also bring “pretend play” into tasks, such as pretending to be a waiter to clear the table.
- Give choices. When trying to get your child to complete a task, offer them choices for HOW they could complete it. Rather than, “I will give you a cookie if you are good while we are shopping”, try “We aren’t going to get any treats today at the store, but I could sure use some help. Do you want to help me find all of the juice we need or all of the cereals?” Or, offer your child the choice of brushing their teeth before or after they put on pajamas. Then offer praise for a job well done.
- Rephrase. When your child is dawdling before going to bed, you could say that if they hurry, there might be time for an extra story, rather than telling them they will get a story if they hurry up. You are trying to teach them the value of time and what great things you can do with extra time.
- Accept “good enough”. As parents, we often have expectations that tasks are completed as we would do them. However, our children do not have the same skills or patience. The bed may not be made to our standards, but if the child is happy with their performance, that is what is important. Praise the effort, not the outcome.
- Tap into intrinsic motivation. By having conversations about how they feel while doing tasks and when they have completed it, a child is able to realize their own pleasure at working at and completing a task. This helps avoid you always having to say, “I am so proud of you” and to help children rely more on their own feelings of self-worth. You could say, “I think that was kind of hard for you. What does it feel like now that you are done?” or “What part did you like the best?”
If you are using rewards to try to stop negative behaviours, instead, try to determine what is underlying the negative behaviour. Is the child hungry or tired at that time? Meeting the child’s need through more proactive strategies has a better likelihood of eliminating the behaviour rather than causing other behaviours to arise to meet the child’s need.
Don’t get me wrong. There is a time and place for rewards. Rewards are best when used sparingly and for a short period of time and for tasks that the child may be really struggling to get going with. One example may be to initially encourage a child to work on sleeping in their own bed. The child may require increased motivation to override their desire to be with you in bed. It is still important to pair the reward with the discussion about how they are feeling about their progress and success so that the reward can be quickly faded and replaced by intrinsic motivation. Rewards can also be offered for yucky, bigger jobs that no one wants to do without a reward. The point is, to build successful traits in your child, generally try using other strategies than rewards.
Bobbi Jo Gaetz, B.Ed, M.Ed, R.Psych.
Bobbi Jo has worked in the field of children and adolescents for 25+ years. As a psychologist, Bobbi Jo has worked in a variety of clinical, school, and treatment settings providing assessment, consultation, and intervention for children and youth. She supports children with behavioural, emotional, and/or social difficulties, including children with diagnoses such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, and learning disabilities. Bobbi Jo also conducts assessments based on the child’s presenting needs and has taught at the Masters level at the University of Calgary in cognitive and neuropsych assessment. Currently, Bobbi Jo works in private practice as well as within the mental health system for children and youth.