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Implementing a reward system that works

Tiernan McKay is a freelance writer based in Denver, Colorado. Her writing has appeared in magazines such as Alive!, Occupational Health and Safety, Restaurants and Institutions, Tampa Bay and Arizona Woman. Right now, she is either ridi...

Motivating kids with rewards

We all want to reward our kids for good behavior and encourage them to reach their goals. Sometimes a reward system is a great tool to help the whole family stay on track.
Raising motivated, proud kids
Proud child

A reward system seems like a really good idea but, more often than not, moms start a system with the best intentions and then end up scrapping the idea when it just doesn’t live up to expectations.

How do you create a system that works for your family and motivates your kids without running into the typical pitfalls? What really works?

Praising good behavior

It’s sometimes (too) easy to point out bad behavior or dole out punishments when your child steps out of line (again) but a reward system will help you recognize good behavior. "Parents who rely too heavily on punishment and reprimands are bound to hit the wall at some point," says Marina Litinsky, Ph.D., and educational psychology expert. "Most kids either stop caring, adapt, or, in many cases, develop resentment that results in covert or overt opposition to the imposed rules and requirement. The general rule of thumb is to give twice as much praise and/or reward for desired behaviors as you give reprimands/punishment for undesired ones."

Find out how to encourage good behavior >>

Common pitfalls

It’s pretty common for a parent to start a reward system with much excitement and then watch the whole plan fizzle. According to Dr. Litinsky, some of the common pitfalls of a reward system include:

  • Making the reward system too complicated for both the parent and child.
  • Focusing on too many behaviors (three-to-five is a good number).
  • Making behavior requirements and/or rewards too vague.
  • Aiming for a big reward that’s too far away or too difficult to achieve (go for smaller rewards).
  • Not following through with rewards.
  • Focusing too heavily on material rewards.

Read: In defense of imperfect parenting >>

A family affair

You’ve probably heard of all sorts of reward systems and there are definitely as many options as there are parents. Unfortunately, there is no one reward system that is perfect for everyone, but most good reward systems share some common traits, including consistency and an easy-to-follow plan. "Involve your child in designing the reward system," said Dr. Litinsky. "Have a discussion and be in agreement with your child about the desired behaviors and rewards and make sure everybody is on the same page about what is expected." When your kids are involved in the process, they are much more likely to enjoy it… and respond to it.

Find out how to reward your children >>

The best motivator

Parents often think that the latest toy or video game will keep a child motivated to behave well but sometimes the best reward is the easiest to deliver. "Keep in mind that your child craves your attention and pleasant, meaningful time together is the greatest motivator," states Dr. Litinsky. "Even if you decide to reward with toys and other material things make sure that you take a trip to get those things together and that you then spend time with your child exploring the toy."

Read more about encouraging good behavior

5 Ways to use children's fiction to encourage good behavior
How to bribe your kids
How to teach better manners 

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