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Rewards! Or, Why Anyone Does Anything

May 2016

When I was a kid, I loved going to the dentist because we always got to go to Baskin & Robbins for ice cream afterwards. My parents were smart. They knew intuitively that if they paired something we didn’t like very much with something that we loved, we would begin to like the first thing more. In this case, ice cream was not contingent upon our behavior in any way, because no matter what, we always got ice cream for going to the dentist. It is a fundamental process by which humans develop a liking for things.

People often come to me wondering how they can help their child want to do the right thing. When I tell them that they might need to start by offering some sort of “reward” or incentive, a common reaction is a definitive, “I don’t believe in bribery!”

First, “bribery” is when someone offers you payment for doing something unethical or unlawful. When parents come to me for help with encouraging their child to do something, they do not want to inspire their children to lie, steal, or hurt someone else. Usually, parents want their children to do more productive things, like clean their room, take a shower, or do their homework. Things we could all agree we actually want kids to be doing. So in that sense, I think “bribery” definitely sets the wrong tone.

Second, the only reason anybody does anything is because we’ve been rewarded (reinforced is actually the more correct word) for doing that behavior in the past. Reinforcement can take many forms, including a paycheck, a verbal “thank you”, or dessert after eating a healthy dinner. Are these things considered “bribery”?

As parents we often lament that our kids don’t have the intrinsic motivation to do things they “should” be doing. Well, I ask, why should they? Kids haven’t had a lot of experience in the world, and so they haven’t had many chances to get positive reinforcement for doing things that maybe they don’t like so much, like cleaning their room, taking a shower, or doing their homework. We can help speed things along by providing some external reinforcement paired with the naturally occurring reinforcers. Eventually, we hope that we won’t need to offer the external reinforcement anymore.

There will be people who disagree with me on the value of offering external reinforcement in the form of “rewards”. These are generally folks who are concerned that doing so will inhibit the development of intrinsic motivation to do a necessary task. I ask them to tell me – if a child is not already motivated to engage in an important productive behavior, how are you going to get them to do it? If you drag them kicking or screaming, or begrudgingly only because of the threats you have made, they will likely be focused only on avoiding these negative things rather than on experiencing the benefits of the task. Because these benefits (i.e. reinforcers) are often subtle and more reinforcing to more mature individuals, it may take quite a while for your child to experience enough of those natural reinforcers to be intrinsically motivated to do the task. You have to start somewhere, and extrinsic motivators can be that “somewhere”.

To recap – just like punishment (check out last month’s article if this word still gives you the shudders), there is no judgment about whether reinforcement is good or bad. Reinforcement doesn’t always involve candy treats and prize boxes. The most common and powerful source of reinforcement is actually social – in the form of social approval, attention, or explicit praise. Reinforcement can also be as simple as the smile appreciating your kindness, re-discovering previously buried fun toys now available for playing once the room has been cleaned, the nice feeling of taking a hot shower, and the pride of getting an “A” on an assignment. Children don’t have a lot of experience in the world yet, so they don’t know these rewards are coming.

Sometimes they need an extrinsic reinforcer (i.e. a reward like ice cream after going to the dentist) to get the behavior going, and eventually this becomes internalized into the ever-important “intrinsic motivation” to do those tasks that need to be done to be independent and successful in life.

Dr. Teri Bullis, Ph.D., BCBAI believe that every parent I’ve ever worked with loves their child and is doing the very best that they can. But while parenting is the toughest job anyone will ever have, children don’t come with a “how to” manual. I can provide those “how to” directions, tailored for your unique child and family situation.

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