We all love our kids, but sometimes they can drive us up the wall. Sometimes, it takes a sticker or a cookie to get them to sit still long enough for you to get through a dentist appointment or a trip to the grocery store.
If you’re lucky enough to have kids that behave without the need for any extra treats or rewards, this is not the article for you. Feel free to stick around, but don’t be snarky in the comments.
How can you use rewards to help your kids behave? Here are some of my favorite tricks that I’ve picked up over the years.
Figure Out What You’re Giving Rewards For
Before you start stocking up on gold star stickers, your first step is to figure out what you’re giving rewards for. Are you trying to help encourage good behavior while discouraging, if not punishing, bad behavior? Are you trying to help your kids develop good habits like brushing their teeth or showering every day? Your ultimate goal will help to determine what kind of rewards you’re going to give, how often you give them, and what sort of behavior qualifies for a reward.
You don’t have to make all your decisions now. Just start laying the foundation for how you’re going to design your reward program.
Material vs. Social Rewards
When you’re deciding on rewards, it’s important to understand the difference between material and social rewards. Material rewards include anything you can gift to your child in exchange for their good behavior. This could be anything from those golden star stickers I mentioned a moment ago, to a new stuffed animal, a cookie, or extra screen time to play their favorite game.
Social rewards include those non-material rewards that you can give your children. Things like affection and praise don’t cost anything but can have an incredible effect on their behavior. Other rewards, like trips to the park or the zoo, might cost a little more but are still considered social rewards.
Only Reinforce Good Behavior
Learning which behavior to reward and which to ignore can be challenging. As a parent, we’re making this up as we go and what works for our first kids might not work for the second. The trick is to start paying closer attention so you can notice good behavior — and reward it — even when they’re not expecting it. Instead of diving into the Instagram rabbit hole when they give you a moment’s peace — which can be incredibly tempting — pay closer attention to when they’re behaving well and reward it.
It’s a delicate balancing act and one that you’ll have to develop and modify as you go. Be patient and flexible.
Cater Your Plan for Each Child
Remember how I said that what works for one child won’t work for the next? You may have one child that lives and breathes in stickers and stuffed animals and one that can’t stand the thought of using stickers, and prefers video games or spending time outside. If you try to treat the first one to a trip to the park, or the second to a new pack of stickers, it’s not going to be nearly as effective.
Be prepared to adjust each child’s reward plan as their likes and hobbies change. This month, one child might be obsessed with Spongebob, but next month the little square dude is the worst thing in the world. You know how fickle kids can be. Change things up as often as necessary to ensure that your rewards stay effective.
Use Rewards to Build Good Habits
Your reward program isn’t just good to help ensure good behavior. It can also be a useful tool for helping your children build good habits. Things, like brushing their teeth every night or taking a shower, or putting their dirty clothes in the hamper, are all habits that they’re going to need to learn anyway. Including them in the good behavior to be rewarded category helps to make your life a little bit easier, because you’re essentially killing two birds with one stone.
If you’re using your rewards to build habits, make sure you’re focusing on one habit at a time. It takes time to build a habit, but you might be surprised how little time it takes before they stop asking for rewards and just keep up with their habits without thinking about them.
There are plenty of articles out there that look down on the idea of using rewards to help get your kids to behave but try looking at it a little differently. Are you more likely to go to the gym if you have to, or if there’s some sort of incentive? Maybe there’s a step competition going in the office or there’s some monetary reward for working out three days a week. Whatever the case, that incentive will make you more likely to get that workout in. Over time, those weekly workouts start to become a habit, and you don’t have the incentive as much anymore. Reward programs for your kids work the same way.