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To Treat or Not to Treat: Why Rewards and Incentives Work Best When Used in Moderation

Have you ever been tempted to give your child a doughnut to get him to sit quietly in the shopping cart? Many parents have been there.

According to a survey conducted by Hanover Research, an independent third-party research firm, “About three-quarters of parents admitted to using material rewards as a means to get their children to behave in a desired way.”

“Most parents,” the survey continues, “use tangible, non-monetary items as rewards or incentives, but academic literature on the subject largely agrees that incentives and tangible rewards can inhibit children’s long-term development and intrinsic motivation to learn.”

Easy for them to say, right? After all, when your child is squirming in the shopping cart seat, grabbing for packages of candy and wailing to get out, how can you not turn to a reward or incentive? But where do you draw the line?

But first, just what is the difference between rewards and incentives?

Well, a reward reinforces your child’s good behavior. For example, if your child cleans her room without being asked, you might reward her with an extra hour of screen time.

Whereas an incentive persuades your child to do something, such as clean her room. If you were to incentivize your child, you would offer an extra hour of screen time on the condition that your child cleans her room first.

The problem, according to a literature review that Hanover Research conducted before the survey, is that “Among researchers, it is generally agreed that rewards have a negative impact on childhood development. Academics largely agree that providing rewards sets an unrealistic precedent of behavior for young children, which decreases their intrinsic motivation in the long term and gives them poor value systems.”

However, Dr. Helen Hadani, the director of research for the Center for Childhood Creativity and a member of The Goddard School’s Educational Advisory Board, says that while research states that rewards and incentives can be detrimental, that doesn’t mean they’re always bad.

In fact, she notes that parents can use rewards and incentives to encourage their children to try something new that they may enjoy, such as riding a bike without training wheels or eating a new food. If they enjoy the new activity, further rewards or incentives won’t be necessary because the activity becomes its own reward. In other words, the feelings of engagement and enjoyment are the best motivators of all.

As with anything, moderation is key. Using rewards and incentives strategically and sparingly – so they don’t become the norm – can be helpful. “As with any parenting tip,” Dr. Hadani says, “there is no one right way to motivate children.”