Raising Happiness


January Newsletter: Motivating Kids

January 27, 2011 | Newsletters | 0 comments

When you CAN use tangible rewards

This month, I focused on ways to motivate kids—without using bribes, rewards, or threats. 

I also joined the firestorm of controversy around Amy Chua’s article in the Wall Street Journal, which coincidentally centered around the best way to motivate kids.  Chua seemed to be advocating the use of coercion, threats, and bribes—not happiness habits!  CBS Sunday Morning came to Berkeley to talk to me about it, which was fun, and made clear that Chua’s position is not as extreme as it first seemed.

In all of this, several parents have asked a good question: Is it EVER okay to reward kids for good behavior? Sometimes it actually is okay, despite my emphatic opposition to reward systems.  Here’s when:
(1) If the task you want to reward your children for is NOT a super-boring and routine chore, never ever ever offer if-then rewards.  Think of kids who are rewarded for kindness: they become less likely to repeat their kind act.

(2) However, if it is a rote task that you absolutely can’t make more challenging and less ho-hum—and if you just can’t seem to connect it to a higher purpose—you CAN use rewards, if you:

—Explain to kids the reason the chore is necessary.
—Admit that the chore is super boring.
—Allow them to do the chore in their own way.  (This is why I let my daughter hand-wash dishes when we have a perfectly good dishwasher.)

(3) You can also use surprise rewards.  The key is to make absolutely sure that the reward is not in any way expected, and that the task is already completely finished when you offer the reward.  So you can take your kids out to a movie for that job-well-done…but only if they don’t even slightly suspect that you are going to do so until the job actually has been done well.

(4) Don’t forget about the power of praise.  Growth-mindset praise is not corruptive like a tangible reward, especially when it comes as positive feedback (“Practicing the piano an extra 20 minutes worked—you sound great!”) rather than a vague compliment (“Good job!”).

If you’d like to read more about ways to motivate kids without rewards, I highly recommend Dan Pink’s book Drive; on page 69 he offers a decision tree for when to reward…and when not to.

This is an excerpt from the January Raising Happiness newsletter, which I cross-post here so that readers can comment and ask questions.  To subscribe to the newsletter, click here.

Watch the CBS Sunday Morning segment here:

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