Raising Happiness


Punished by Rewards?

April 22, 2009 | The Main Dish | 17 comments

Like most parents, I used to (okay, I sometimes still do) bribe my children. Constantly. As in: "I will give the first kid to have her room clean a whole sheet of new stickers."

Life is full of undesirable but important tasks; most of us don't feel a fire in our soul to put the laundry away, but we do it anyway, and as Heather commented last week, no one gives us a piece of candy for doing it. How do we teach our kids to do what we need them to do without bribing them?

You may have read the series I posted about forming good habits last year, which I've taken down and revised into this series of postings. Last year's advice about getting kids to do the boring stuff that they have to do, based on the neuroscience of reward systems was based on rewarding kids with things like stickers and gum. For the record, the program I put together was not at all easy, as suggested by this reader in response to my old series:

Good grief! Negotiating toys and sweets for behaviours!?? This is truly awful and lazy parenting. I couldn't disagree with you more…Dangling carrots is treating your children like mindless donkeys.

I don't think that any parent who is trying to help their kids get into good habits is awful and lazy; we parents dangle carrots because it works, not because we see them as unintelligent.

Social scientists have studied motivation in kids a lot. There are two types: researchers call self-motivation "intrinsic" drive—the desire to do something purely because of the pleasure we derive from the activity itself. On the other hand, we also do things for "extrinsic" reasons—not for the process or the activity, but for the outcome or reward. Kids often do their homework for the grade or the approval of their teacher, for example, rather than for the fun of learning something new.

Intrinsic motivation makes for greater happiness and success, particularly when it comes to academic life. Self-motivated kids achieve more, perceive themselves to be more competent, and are less anxious. Extrinsically motivated kids are more prone to depression. While intrinsic motivation is a particular form of joy, extrinsic motivation can lead to a particular form of unhappiness fueled by fear of failure or disappointment. Sadly, because girls tend to be more attuned to their external appearance and environment, research shows they tend to be more extrinsically motivated and thus are more likely to be depressed.

And despite their often dramatic short-term effect—the kid who leaps off the couch to walk the dog when ice cream is offered upon his return—rewards can actually have a detrimental effect over the medium and long-term. Although rewards get kids to comply with externally imposed requests and rules, ultimately we want kids to become self-motivated without our external goading. Orienting kids towards external rewards can cause them to lose touch with their own feelings and their own intrinsic motivation. A wide body of research shows that when kids find an activity or task that they inherently like doing—such as reading or helping another kid—and then an adult comes along and starts offering rewards for doing that activity, the external rewards have an undermining effect, making them like doing the activity less. They also decrease the likelihood that they will engage in the activity again when given the choice. (This negative impact of rewards is stronger with children than with adults, by the way.)

It makes sense not to reward kids for things that they already like doing. But what about when the task is not something kids want to do for the sheer joy of it? Next week I'll give you a simple step-by-step plan!

© 2009 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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Ahhhh! The wait is killing me. Since your post last week I’ve been really notice how often I use these techniques and I’ve been consciously trying not to. But how DO you get a kid to do something they don’t particularly like (getting ready for bed) without offering some sort of reward or consequence for doing or not doing it? I’m very anxiously awaiting your system and hoping it is something that will work in our house!

Sarah | 7:25 am, April 23, 2009 | Link


Love your articles. This one touched on something I’ve been thinking about a lot because I realized that so much of this is perpetuated by schools and teachers themselves. My 9 y.o. son tells me that the band teacher gives them a pack of candy for filling out their practice sheet fully. His teachers give candy rewards for all kinds of things including Star testing. How can a parent talk about what feels like being undermined?

Lise Solomon | 10:40 am, April 23, 2009 | Link


Oh my gosh!  My GIANT to-do priority this week is to find a way to motivate my 5 year old son!  Your post and the promising one next week – have just made my life a TON easier.  I was going to spend a few hours digging through the literature, education specialists, psychologists – everything looking for some hidden gems that I am obviously missing in my process with my son!
This is such a great newsletter/blog.

Darlene | 10:40 am, April 23, 2009 | Link


I have been reading a ton about the problem with rewards lately.  And I’m excited to hear the alternatives.

Wendy | 7:57 am, April 24, 2009 | Link


Looking forward to the next in this series.  I have a very distracted 4 yo I am trying to try find new tools for.  We lean towards the Montessori philosophy, but sometimes it seems too mellow and even stoic at times.  Once he is engaged, that is one thing, but getting him engaged is the challenge at times!
Thanks for this.

Stephanie | 5:10 pm, April 25, 2009 | Link


Looking forward to the next installment.


Stephanie | 5:14 pm, April 25, 2009 | Link


Trying to use “consequences” more than “rewards” has helped us — and helped tip the scales so we feel like we’re in control and not our daughter. It’s all about watching for opportunities … as in, “You’d like to do ‘X?’ As soon as you get done with ‘Y’ you can go ahead and do that” (verses “I’ll give you ‘X’ if you’ll do ‘Y.’”) Some might argue it’s still dangling a carrot of sorts, but to us, it seems like something she’ll continue to learn her whole life. Fun stuff is GREAT once you get done what needs to get done. Life isn’t so fun when we’re not taking care of our responsibilities.

Rebecca | 5:23 pm, April 25, 2009 | Link


Bribing has been on my mind a lot lately, too. A six year old who I’m very close to (not my own daughter) is having a hard time at school (let’s call her N)…She’s very competitive, and believes she needs to compete for having the most friends. When another girl started getting more friends, N began bribing kids to be HER friend. We didn’t realize this had been going on until it got out of hand… N stole her mother’s engagement ring, and gave it away to a girl as a bribe. Now she can’t remember who she gave it to, and we don’t know if we’ll ever see the ring again.
How do we eradicate destructive bribing from her behavior?! (Not to mention the competitive idea that she has to be most popular.)

Amberlynn | 5:34 pm, April 25, 2009 | Link


Hi Christine,

This is a great resource for me, thank you!  I love the consideration that you are putting into parenting, and your goals for long-term happiness in children. 
I remember hearing about ‘rewarding the effort, not the result” and I’m wondering if you still see this as applicable.  Recently my husband and I saw our 5 yr old son helping out his 23 month old sister and we praised him for it.  Then, later we gave him a marble for it (our current reward system which leads to a treat when the jar is full).  Your blog is making me rethink our marble jar system but I am still wondering if you see it okay to praise/reward the effort. 
Looking forward to hearing more from you.
With appreciation,


Naomi | 4:02 pm, April 26, 2009 | Link


I am a childless adult with Asperger’s syndrome who subscribed to your newsletters because I find some of the suggestions so helpful for struggles with my own self management.  This issue of motivating myself to complete boring activities like housework and some of the tasks at my clerical job is HUGE for me.  (And it seems to get worse as I get older…)The concept of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation that you mentioned in this posting is intriguing.  I am looking forward to more.  With gratitude and kind regards, MARTHA

Martha | 7:23 pm, April 30, 2009 | Link


We’ve been using the “Kazdin Method” from a book by the former APA president for about a month and a half now, with our 4 year old and our 8 year old, with generally good results. Are you familiar with it? It involves a structured reward system that he says is backed up by the research as being a good thing long term.  Has he got it wrong?

James | 8:53 pm, May 1, 2009 | Link


Sounds a lot like Alfie Kohn’s book, Punished by Rewards I read in college 14 years ago.  Where is the citation or credit to him?

brooke | 10:34 pm, May 2, 2009 | Link


Hi Brooke,
You’re exactly right, Alfie Kohn has been a key figure in this research. “Punished by Rewards” is included in my references list. You’ll find the link to the references at the end of each post — this post’s references are here: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/goodwiki/index.php/Habit_Formation


Christine Carter | 12:36 pm, May 3, 2009 | Link


Isn’t the Kazdin method for defiant children? My understanding of the clinical literature regarding defiant children or children with conduct problems is that is it sometimes necessary to use rewards to bring their behavior to a manageable level. I would hesitate to use such a method with a typically developing child because of all the reasons mentioned previously with the limitations of rewards and punishment. I hope the readers of this website understand that a HUGE assumption in the parent education literature for behavior management assumes a healthy attachment relationship between the parent and child.
To advance the cause of moving away from behavior management and moving toward helping children understand and reguatle their emotions so they can manage their own behavior, see the book by Jenna Bilmes called, “Beyond Behavior Management.” It was written for early childhood ecducators, but can be easily adapted by parents.

Rebecca | 7:43 pm, May 3, 2009 | Link


This is something I struggle with both personally and in parenting my kids… but it’s really tough to follow through with.  I really need to remember to come back and read next week!

Kelly | 5:13 pm, May 6, 2009 | Link


I have to say that I am, by all acounts, an adult, and I do reward myself!  When I go to the doctor, I make sure I treat myself with a nice lunch or a pedicure.  When I have to get through something unpleasant, I often pop a piece of chocolate afterward.  I model self-treating to my kids all the time, because it’s part of taking care of ourselves.

Tricia | 1:13 pm, May 8, 2009 | Link


Hi Christine,
I’ve found the work of Harvard’s Robert Kegan to be incredibly useful in framing my encouraging words to the kids. His language of “ongoing regard” from the book, “How The Way We Talk can Change the Way We Work” is written for the office, but apples equally well to children.
Here are the three key points:
1. Be direct. That is, deliver the

appreciation or admiration directly

to the child rather than to or

through others (such as a sibling or Dad)
2. Be specific. The details are key.
3. Be nonattributive. Describe your experiences rather than the child’s

attributes. It shifts the focus onto the parent’s experience rather than parent’s assessment and judgment.
So for example, in the past you might have said, “Jimmy – isn’t Jane a great sister? She’s so thoughtful and considerate!”
In Kegan’s language of ongoing regard, you might instead say, “Jane, I’ve watched you playing Legos all afternoon with your little brother. I really admire how you use your words even when he steals your favorite yellow pieces. I appreciate that you are taking turns with the motor and showing him how to share.”
Also of interest my be a short article on

Kegan’s Theory of Social Maturity:


Paige K. Parsons | 9:08 pm, May 15, 2009 | Link

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