Should We Reward and Praise our Children?

I saw a question on Facebook from a mom who wanted ideas on how to reward her children to motivate them to do everyday things. I think the question ought to be: “Should we reward and praise our children for things like chores and schoolwork?” Maybe not. At least, not the way our culture currently does it.

(Confession: I am sometimes guilty of giving a distracted “good job” or other empty praise, so this post is written as much to myself as to anybody! :-))

Okay, before you have me tarred and feathered for being a mean ol’ ogre of a mom, hear me out. 😉 I know that the schools use gold stars and A’s to try to motivate the kiddos to do their work and play nicely with each other. I know that the popular parenting “experts” tell us that our children need to have every little accomplishment praised to the heavens or else their little psyches will suffer unspeakable damage. I know that most children get money or candy for doing chores. I know that this is the status quo. Well, I think it’s healthy to challenge the status quo.  “Just because all of the other mommies are jumping off the cliff…”

Just to be clear, I’m not saying we should never compliment our children or give them things they like to eat or play with. I’m just saying that it might not be the best thing to do 50+ times a day, and not in response to what ought to be normal behavior. There should be plenty of fun and family time happening “just because”. Praise should be reserved for when a child does something that is truly praiseworthy. Making a strong connection between accomplishments and what children perceive to be “love” sets them up to feel like they are worthless unless they are doing things. We need to teach them that their worth comes from who they are, not what they do.

Let’s think this “positive affirmation” parenting through. Yes, we get warm fuzzies from it. Yes, the kids (sometimes) respond to it. Yes, for many of us, it’s the only thing we know to do. Does that make it the best thing for our children? No. Here’s why not.

Rewarding/(falsely) praising every little accomplishment trains our children to expect reward/praise. One of our primary jobs as parents is to prepare our children for the adult world. What happens when they are all grown up and nobody is clapping or giving them candy for cleaning the toilet? When they are out on their own, they won’t have praise and rewards from you or anybody else for doing the things that need to be done. True, in the case of a job, you do your job and you get paid. That may seem like an exception, but I don’t think it is. Getting paid is a natural consequence of doing your job.

Adult life is all about natural consequences. If you text while driving, you run your car off the road. If you don’t go grocery shopping, you don’t have any food in the house. If you get distracted playing a video game while something is in the oven, you burn dinner. Nobody is standing there with artificial rewards for these things. The natural consequence of doing something well is the reward! If I plan my menu careful and go buy groceries, then I have the what I need to make dinners for the week.

Children who are trained to expect rewards and false praise for everything they do tend to move in one of two directions.

  1. They become emotionally dependent on the praise and rewards. As I mentioned above, children often mistake the approval for what they’ve done as “love”. Conversely, they often mistake disapproval of their actions as a lack of love. What you get from this is either a people-pleaser who has to be accomplishing something to feel like they’re worth something, or you get a child/adult who just gives up. They believe that they’ll never be able to measure up, so why even bother to try? Some of these children even go so far as to try to get disapproval. They figure that if disapproval is what they’re going for, then it won’t hurt so bad when they get it.
  2. The other common result is a child/adult who is completely absorbed by what’s in it for them. If they are told to help make dinner, they want to know how much money/tv time/candy they are going to get out of the deal. If you can’t come up with a good enough incentive package, you get to make dinner on your own. Or, you have to resort to threats and angry displays. You will have successfully taught them that they are the center of the universe. I have actually seen children tell their parents “no I won’t… unless you give me (fill in the blank)” and the parents cave right in! They have completely missed the part about how THEY are the parents.

In part two, I’ll share what parenting looks like without bribery and flattery. In the mean time, check out Let Them Help: Part 1, part 2 and part 3 for thoughts about kids helping around the house and Our Homeschooling Philosophy for how to teach your kids to love to learn!

What’s your parenting style? Do you tend to use a lot of praise and rewards?

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