Motivate Children Without Praise and Rewards

Did you know that it’s possible to motivate children without praise and reward systems, like sticker charts, prizes, or treats? Have you heard that rewards and praise work immediately, but lose their effectiveness over time? What if there was a better way to build confidence, motivation, and cooperation? Good news — there is!

We’re very quick to praise our children and the words “Good job!” are meant to encourage and motivate. But, what if, instead of motivating our children to do better, continue to improve, master a task, or learn new skills, we are actually doing the opposite? What if we’re teaching them to give minimal effort, behave “properly,” but only when someone is watching, and avoid risking failure and making mistakes?

There are a million resources out there telling us that “positive reinforcement” is the way to go. The idea is that, by catching a child exhibiting “positive” behavior and praising that behavior, we are giving our child immediate feedback that his behavior is desirable. He connects the reward with the behavior and will want to repeat that behavior again to receive the reward.

Easy-peasy, right? Yes… but, there’s more to it than that.

A child prepares to do the monkey bars. Motivating children without praise and rewards
Focus and determination as these girls prepare to conquer the monkey bars.

Why praise and rewards don’t work (in the long run)

Praise and rewards do work, which is why we keep using them! But, as any parent who’s had a child turn their nose up at the offer of a reward can tell you, eventually the effects wear off. Sticker charts work at first — what kids doesn’t like stickers?! — and then they don’t — “I only like shiny sparkle stickers!”. The promise of dessert will get them to finish their broccoli — “Yay!! Ice-cream!!” — and then it won’t — “I don’t even like ice-cream.”

Before you know it, the stakes get higher, the promises go up in value, and we’ve gone from stickers on a chart for good behavior, to money in the piggy bank for good grades. And, eventually, that will wear out as well.

When we motivate with praise and rewards, and other types of external motivators, children are not learning more about themselves when they accomplish a new task, they are simply learning what it takes to please adults. They lose interest over time, because they figure it out: Do this and get that. The end. That was easy.

On the other hand, a child who learns to listen to his own voice, develops internal motivation, and learns to push himself to try harder, celebrate his victories, and acknowledge his shortcomings.

He learns that perseverance pays off — not because he gets applause or a cookie — but because he becomes a faster runner or a better reader. He figures out that cooperating with others helps get more done, feels good, and makes it easier to make friends and have fun. A child who listens to his own voice learns that it’s okay to mess up, make mistakes, and try again.

Children are in a constant state of growth and change and their number one, most important project is themselves. In learning more about themselves, they become better equipped to learn more about others and the world around them.

Why do we continue to use praise and rewards?

So, if praise and rewards don’t work in the long term, why do we continue to use them?

  • They’re a quick and easy way to provide positive reinforcement
  • We really are proud of our child’s accomplishments and want them to know it
  • We want our child to repeat their actions or behavior, so we want them to know that we approve of what they just did
  • It usually just slips out – it is almost a reflex

Whether we mean to or not, when we use simple praise we are teaching children that every accomplishment, from scribbling a quick picture (easy) to crossing the monkey bars for the first time (challenging), is worthy of the same degree of enthusiasm or acknowledgement: Good job!

Let’s be honest… that scribbled picture wasn’t that amazing. Your kid knows it and you know it. So don’t gush over hasty artwork with the same enthusiasm as an accomplishment that actually required effort, patience, practice, and skill.

When every little thing gets a, “good job,” “I’m so proud of you,” or “way to go,” we are inadvertently teaching our children that giving their best effort is not really necessary, because someone will probably give them a verbal pat on the back anyway. Why try any harder than you have to?  

Children know when they’ve worked hard.

So, what should you do instead?

First, cut yourself some slack. Saying “good job” is not the end of the world and you haven’t done permanent damage to your child’s self-esteem.

Second, start paying attention to how and when you use praise and ask yourself these questions:

  1. What action or behavior am I trying to reinforce?
  2. What additional information can I give my child about this action or behavior?
  3. How can I help my child learn more about himself in this situation?

It sounds like this:

Situation: Your child is helping clean up the playroom and put toys away.

Automatic response: “Good job, buddy! Thanks for helping!”

What action or behavior am I trying to reinforce? Helpfulness, cooperation, and orderliness. I want him to help more often with less arguing.

What additional information can I give my child about this action or behavior? When we clean up together we have more time for stories, or when we put things away in the right place we can find it easily the next time.

How can I help my child learn more about himself in this situation? By sharing how it makes me feel to have his help with this activity.

So — instead of, “Good job, buddy! Thanks for helping!” — we could, instead, say something like, “Thanks for helping put everything away in the right place! Next time we play we’ll be able to find stuff quickly,” or “I really appreciate your helpfulness! Now we have time for an extra story, because we worked together!” or “That was so easy, because we worked together!”

By simply pausing before we praise, and giving a little extra thought to what we are about to say, we can expand on that positive reinforcement and make it more meaningful. We can help our children learn something about themselves and connect them with that internal voice that grows through experience and feedback.

A child paints at the easel. Motivating children without praise and rewards
Next time your child presents you with her artwork, try saying, “Tell me about your painting,” instead of, “So pretty” or “Nice!”

Next Steps

Here, at Children’s House, we have a program we use called The Virtues Project. Rather than motivate children with praise and rewards, the Virtues have helped us move from empty praise to more impactful language when we engage with our students about their actions, accomplishments, and behavior. You can download your own copy of Virtues 101: A Parent’s Guide to Understanding the Virtues at CHMS and start using the Virtues language at home today and subscribe to our blog for additional parenting tips and suggestions.

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