Punished by Rewards, Motivated by Incentives

Mother and son doing laundry together

Do rewards for children punish their good efforts and reduce intrinsic motivation? Many times, the answer is “Yes, they do.” But used effectively, rewards act as incentives, and they increase both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation and build good behaviour. Knowing how to prevent punishment by rewards and how to effectively motivate children with incentives can transform your child.

As a parenting coach, I am frequently told, “I have tried rewards, and they don’t work with my child.” Essentially the parent is saying, the rewards are either completely ineffective or punishing. Here are a few key points to understand how tangible rewards can be punishing.

Punished by Rewards

Offering a tangible reward for something the child is already motivated to do.

When you do this, you increase the pressure on your child. Some people thrive on pressure. This often occurs with high self-confidence and ability. In this case, the reward/pressure will increase energy and focus, and it is a good thing.

But most children are somewhat apprehensive and unsure of their ability. Learning, growing, and increasing skills and abilities are a natural part of child development. Uncertainty is more the rule than the exception. In these cases, the pressure from a reward turns into stress and fear of not getting (or thought of as losing) the reward. Stress produces worry and fear of failure. This actually reduces the child’s ability to focus and think clearly. The reward becomes a distraction, reduces the child’s performance, and increases the likelihood of failure. Punished by rewards. Ouch!

Giving a reward in advance.

Sometimes parents will give the child a reward with the stipulation that the child earns it later. “OK, you can go out and play, as long as you promise to finish your homework before bedtime.” Or, “OK, I will buy you that toy, but when we get home, you have to…” The child gets what they want with the promise of some future behaviour.

Sometimes with divorce, we feel guilty for not being there all the time, and try to compensate with material items. 

The problem here is that once the child has what they want, there is little motivation for the child to keep the promise. Even worse, the parent now has increased focus on the child keeping the promise. This is the perfect storm, a setup for nagging and complaining by the parent. The child thinks, “Dad is always nagging me. I hate it (or him).” If the reward was something like a toy, the parent may get upset and say, “I’m taking away that toy for a week because you lied to me about doing your chores!” Punished by rewards again. Ouch!

Non-contingent rewards.

Most parents enjoy giving presents to their children. We enjoy seeing their excitement and happy faces. We want our children to have things we didn’t have. Sometimes with divorce, we feel guilty for not being there all the time, and try to compensate with material items.

There are a couple of problems with this situation.

First, the behaviours that get paid off with the reward are asking, begging, nagging, whining, pouting or other typical behaviours that happen when a child wants something. Many times these behaviours are absolutely obnoxious, and when they result in the child getting what they want, those behaviours continue to occur.

Second, we sometimes tell our child what must be done to get the reward, and then go back on our word. For example, we may say, “If you get all your chores done before noon, we will go out for lunch.” Maybe most of the chores are done, or they are all done but done poorly, and we go out for lunch anyway. This teaches the child that they cannot rely on what we say, and it teaches them that their good work, poor work, and incomplete work all pay off equally well. So instead of building our child’s work ethic, we are actually punishing it. Punished by rewards. Ouch!


Parents will often have a problem using rewards because they consider the rewards “bribes.” A bribe is something that entices a person to do something illegal or immoral. This is not the case with rewards or incentives for our children.

But something much worse happens when the child is behaving badly, and the parent tries to use a reward to get the child to straighten up.

This becomes extortion. The child learns that getting a reward begins with their bad behaviour or a threat of bad behaviour. When this happens, the child is actually forcing the parent to provide a reward to stop or prevent the bad behaviour. This is extortion and is another example of the child (and parent) being punished by rewards. Ouch!

Motivated by Incentives

Incentives are rewards that are properly used and therefore are highly motivating. They are not limited to candy, toys, or activities, but can include those things. The best incentives are those that are used up (or consumed) and so must be earned again. A good example of this is an activity with a parent or time playing with a special toy.

Rather than buying your child a toy as an incentive, consider buying yourself the toy, and then allowing your child to earn time playing with it. Rather than having your child work for a month to earn a new video game, have them work for a much shorter time to earn time with the new game that you buy for the family. Further use of the new game is earned by appropriate behaviour.

Here are some conditions that make rewards work as powerful incentives for good behaviour.

Earned incentives.

Instead of freely giving our children many things and then urging, nagging, or taking things away to get them to do what that they need to do, we should set up it up the privilege in advance as an earned privilege.

Rather than having full rights to a cell phone, and then getting it taken away for not doing chores, we should set it up so that doing chores today earns the cell phone for tomorrow. Also, using the cell phone appropriately earns the continued use of the cell phone. So, if your child has not done the chores, they have not earned the cell phone for tomorrow. If they choose to use the phone inappropriately (calling late at night, vulgar text messages, or calling inappropriate individuals), then the child has not earned the use of the phone for the next day (or several days). But it is only temporary, and the child can earn the phone the next day by doing the chores.

More importantly, when the chores are done and the phone is used appropriately, we can tell the child that their efforts are appreciated, and we are glad they have earned the phone for the next day. This phone-behaviour contingency is the same both ways, but it is drastically different for the child. Setting the phone up as an earned privilege means you can smile when the phone is earned and have empathy for your child when it is not. If the phone is given in advance, everyone starts with a smile, and then all the smiles are lost during the urging, nagging, and taking away the phone. Earned incentives are very motivating.

Contingent on the child’s behaviour.

For incentives to work well, the incentive must be contingent on the child’s behaviour. If completing homework well allows the child to play a video game, then we must make sure that the homework has been done, and that it has been done well. Only when both of these requirements have been met, will the child be allowed to play the video game. This takes some effort on the part of the parent to make sure the incentive is actually earned, but it is parental effort well spent because it makes the incentive highly motivating for good behaviour.

A happy home.

Avoid criticism and coercion. Many of us have worked for a bad boss. This is a boss who is demanding, critical, and unappreciative. With such a boss, it gets harder to go to work each day, even though we are doing the same thing. If the boss offers an incentive for something, we are generally willing to work for the incentive, but once the incentive is earned, we are no happier and don’t want to work any harder.

As parents, we need to make sure we are not being the “bad boss.” We need to smile at our children and find many good things about them. We need to avoid criticising and coercing our children. When we do, then incentives will work both to get the child doing the desired behaviour and to build long-term cooperation and motivation. Our child may do something just to get the incentive, but when we are delivering the incentive, we need to smile and say how much we appreciate their efforts.

Children will generally work harder for a small reward today than they will for a trip to the beach next summer.

We need to provide the positive social attention to the desired behaviour. In the short run, it generally takes tangible incentives to get a behaviour going, but in the long run, it is our positive social attention that is the most powerful. Both the tangible incentive and our positive attention for appropriate behaviour are very motivating.

Intrinsic control.

Extrinsic incentives actually produce intrinsic (internal) control of behaviour. With an incentive, the child is choosing to do what is expected. The child, not the parent, is deciding to act. With a lack of incentives, where the child is being forced to do something, the parent is deciding and forcing the child to act.

With incentives, the child learns that when they behave as expected, good things happen. Without incentives, the parent must use coercion, and the child learns what it feels like to be forced to do what the parent says. This produces bad feelings and motivates the child to avoid the parent and fight back or get even.

So incentives put the child in control of their own behaviour, improve the parent/child relationship, and help the child learn to develop intrinsic control of their behaviour. Once again, being motivated by incentives produces good results.

Characteristics of powerfully motivating incentives.

There are 5 characteristics of incentives that affect how powerful they are to our child.

  1. Positive: We all work much harder to get something positive than avoid something negative.
  2. Immediate: The sooner the reward is enjoyed, the more powerful it is. A doughnut today is more powerful than fitting into a size smaller clothes next month. For young children, the incentive may need to happen immediately. For older children, there can be some delay. But children will generally work harder for a small reward today than they will for a trip to Disneyland next summer. Make the reward as immediate as you can. 
  3. Certain: We work harder when we know our efforts will pay off. 
  4. Preferred: We all have different things that we are willing to work for. If your child has been getting a lot of attention for acting up, then the incentive for good behaviour needs to have lots of your attention. If the child is earning action figures for behaving well, then after a few action figures are earned, the child will go back to behaving poorly to earn what they really want – your attention. In this case, a preferred incentive (your attention) should be a major part of the incentive. The incentive could be getting an ice cream together or going outside to play for 15 minutes. Make sure you are offering an incentive that your child wants to work for. 
  5. Size: The bigger the reward, the more motivating it is. Appropriately sized rewards are best.

These characteristics can be adjusted against the difficulty of the behaviour, to find an incentive that is motivating for your child. Good incentives are very motivating.

Although there has been much said about the good and bad of rewards or incentives, there is a large body of research that demonstrates the positive short-term and long-term effects of properly used rewards for children. There are also a few research studies that demonstrate the negative effect of rewards. Except in specific instances, as outlined above, rewards generally do not punish.

Rewards and incentives actually build self-discipline, intrinsic control, delayed gratification, and intrinsic motivation. Rewards and incentives also eliminate or drastically reduce the need for direct, coercive control of a child by the parent, and therefore strengthen the parent-child relationship and the positive influence of the parent on the child. So when it comes to your child, go ahead and use good incentives to motivate your child to do the things they need to do. You and your child will be glad you did.

Author's Bio:

Tom Dozier, BCaBA
Behaviorist & Parenting Coach
Guaranteed Parent Training