When Is It Okay To Reward Our Kids?

The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 204 · Duration: 00:19:35

When Is It Okay To Reward Our Kids?

Here’s a question for you, your ADHD teenager has a hard time staying focused and motivated to do their schoolwork. Is it okay to pay them for getting good grades?Click To Tweet We’ll talk about this and a whole lot more on this week’s podcast, When Is It Okay To Reward Our Kids?

Today we’re hearing from Carol from Long Island New York and Carol writes:

Dear Neil,

I have a question about paying for grades.  Our 15-year-old very bright daughter has ADHD, is very social, and has struggled with motivation to do her work. We’ve gotten into control battles over all this and now we are trying to stay much more positive. Her father and I decided to pay her for A’s and B’s, which she is completely capable of.  Lately however, I’ve been reading that rewarding kids undermines intrinsic motivation and now I am concerned that we may be hurting her in the long run to solve a short-term problem.  Can you shed some light on this issue?

Carol from Long Island, New York

Now to Carol’s question:

The idea of intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation is important. We certainly don’t want our kids to grow up thinking that the only reason to do things is for a medal or a reward.  And yet our society has encouraged that for a while now.  We’ve been so focused on making sure kids feel good about themselves that we’ve gone out of our way to praise everything they do. In fact, not only have we worked hard to praise our kids to boost their self-esteem, but we’ve way overfocused on making sure our kids feel happy.  If they feel bad, it’s the parent’s job to fix it. “Susie didn’t want to play with you?  That’s terrible, I’ll call the teacher and make sure the other kids are nice to you.”  Then when kids get older, they are without the skill to own their feelings, accept the bad ones, learn from them, and learn to make self-valuing choices. In order to be a happy successful adult, we need to know how to make good choices, own the part of the choice that’s hard and unrewarding to get to the part that’s fulfilling and rewarding. That applies to work and career, relationships and even recreation. The knowledge and skill to do that, is learned and grows all the way through childhood and adolescence, and even beyond and throughout one’s life.  But if parents are always running interference for kids to make sure that they are happy all the time, which of course can only cause parental anxiety and burn out because it’s an impossible task, kids won’t grow up knowing how to accept and manage uncomfortable feelings nor will they feel empowered to take control of their lives. 

I’m hearing from many employers that the young people they’re hiring today don't think working hard is part of the job.  They seem to think showing up should be rewarded.  

An extreme outcome of all this I’ve seen lately, is a lot of teens and young adults exhibiting what is called, hostile dependency. In other words, being furious with and having temper tantrums including violence towards their parents for not giving them what they want.  

In these situations, it’s clear that the teenager or young adult believes that the source of their happiness lies outside of them. They depend on their parents for their emotional well-being. They believe they aren’t in control, their parents are. Here’s a statement I’ve heard in various forms from kids, “Of course I’m doing bad in school.  Why should I try when all my friends’ parents buy them big gaming computers, and you hate gaming and won’t get me one?”  Really?

I recently read an article in the Neuroscience News by James C. Kaufman, an educational researcher in the field of creativity, and he says,

“...rewards and praise may actually dissuade your child’s intrinsic interest in being creative. That’s because the activity may become associated with the reward and not the fun the child naturally has doing it.”Click To Tweet

So, here’s the essential question, the essential concept.  Who is in charge of me? Who is responsible for my happiness?  Are our kids in charge of and responsible for their behavior, or are parents in charge of and responsible for youth behavior? Who has control?  Where is control located, in the parent or in the kid? 

I’m glad that the parenting advice pendulum is now swinging back to a place where motivation and control is viewed as within the child or adolescent, and parents are encouraged to nurture that inherent motivation and control. By engaging in an activity, whether a creative endeavor, a sport, or a school assignment, or even a task around the house, the engagement belongs to the young person, not their parents.  

Does this mean we no longer reward our kids?  And if we aren’t rewarding them for good behavior and achievement, what do parents do to encourage their kids? Let’s not throw out rewards entirely and we’ll get to that, but there are Lots of things parents can do to encourage their children and teenagers.  

Kids do want and need parental approval; so keep it low key, focus on effort more than result.  Comment on something specific about what they did, not, “you’re so smart.” Instead, “I appreciate how hard you worked for that.” Or “Nice job bringing your grade up.  I appreciate the way you stayed with it.” I really enjoyed the play, and I loved the scene with the fight you had with George. It seemed so real.”  Also, simply enjoy them; be open to who they are and allow yourself to appreciate their basic nature, a nature that might be very different from your own.  Notice their efforts and accomplishments and be awed and appreciative of them. Offer resources to support their interests and efforts. 

Earlier this year in March, I recorded a podcast entitled, Is Our Parenting All Wrong?

The podcast was largely about the book by investigative reporter, Michaeleen Doucleff titled, Hunt, Gather, Parent. After living with several hunting gathering communities, the author discovered that in hunting and gathering communities, there is a strong belief that locus of control resides in every individual.  As such, they let kids learn by doing and don’t focus on teaching kids how to behave or how to do things; they let kids learn on their own using their own intrinsic interest and motivation. Subtle expressions of approval or disapproval gives kids all the information they need to stay on their own learning and growing path. 

So the bottom line here is that we need to support our kids’ interests, activities and responsibilities, but not take over responsibility for our kids’ happiness or success.  The motivation for those and the effort for those needs to come from our youngsters.

So Carol, now more directly to your question; is it okay to pay for or reward good grades, or will it undermine intrinsic motivation? And you’ve asked the question just right; if you can do it without undermining intrinsic motivation and supporting your daughter for her quest for better grades, it could be helpful. So it depends on why we’re offering a reward and how we’re offering a reward. 

For activities that a kid does not have an interest in, yet needs to participate in and apply themselves to, there could be little intrinsic interest to plug into. They might be interested in going to school to be with their friends and be in the school play, or on the water polo team, but math homework, yuck.  In that case, an external reward could make sense.  That’s a good reason to help an ADHD 15-year-old with their motivation.  But then there's how to offer it.  Here’s how not to do it.  “You’ve got to do your work, I’m tired of fighting with you every night.  I tell you what, if you get all your work done every week, I’ll give you $20 bucks. Deal?”  Why is that the wrong way?  Because it’s too much of the parent’s agenda for the kid to do their work. It’s more like a bribe.  “If you make the Dean’s List, I’ll buy you a car.”  Terrible.  How about this instead?  “I know homework is not your favorite thing. It’s hard for you to resist all the fun alternatives and stay with it. We’re happy to help out. Would it help with your motivation if at the end of each week, if your work is current, we’ll give you $8 for A’s and $4. For B’s as long as there’s nothing below a “C”.  Will that be helpful to your motivation?”  That way you’ll have permission to go out and some money to enjoy yourself with.” “Thanks!! Yes, that helps a lot.” 

This way Carol, the responsibility and ownership of doing well in school belongs to your daughter. From this lesson, perhaps she’ll learn that setting up personal rewards is a good way to motivate oneself to do less enjoyable things.  You can support this by asking her how she feels having done well this week.  And when she tells you she feels good or happy about it, you can congratulate her for giving herself the gift of feeling good.  Then when she gets to college, she might decide that when she wants to go on a week-end camping trip with friends next weekend, she decides to use that as motivation to get a head start on some school projects.  

So parents, therapists and folks who work with families, rewarding kids can and indeed often does undermine intrinsic motivation. Rewards can be a distraction from personal responsibility for happiness and success.  And yet rewards are an important part of life.  We work for them in many ways every day.

We simply need to make sure that the rewards we offer are not hijacking intrinsic motivation or the satisfaction of what life has to offer our kids.Click To Tweet  Let’s make sure that the rewards we offer are not bribes, but support for our kids learning how to motivate and reward themselves. 

Thanks for tuning in listeners and special thanks to Carol for her important question.  

Before we close, let’s do this together, take a slow deep breath, hold and then exhale very slowly, ready?  Inhale through your nose, 1,2,3,4,5,6,7, good, now hold, 1,2,3,4,5 and exhale very slowly 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10.  One more time,  inhale, 1,2,3,4,5,6,7, good now hold, 1,2,3,4,5, and now exhale and send your stress away.  Are you remembering to slow down and breathe and do other easy positive things for yourself? They’re important because as I’ve said many times and I’ll say it again, this parenting business ain’t easy so self-care is essential; you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it.  Bye for now.

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