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Child and Adolescent Counseling Blog for Lisa Klipfel, MFT
My Child Gets Stickers and Pencil Rewards Everywhere. Is It Working?

When I was young and went to the doctor to get shots, I was so excited when we left because I got a lollipop. It is a reward for getting through a difficult situation, shots. This concept spread to the dentist. Then to the schools. Now it seems, kids are being rewarded for every action in their life despite the amount of difficulty of the activity. To take this further, our community is concerned about kids feeling excluded. So, now when kids are on teams, everyone gets a ribbon or trophy so no kids feel badly.

The concept of a reward system, or a token economy, is to give a reward or token for desirable behavior. The first question is to ask is what behavior do I want to reward? The answers can range anywhere from receiving a shot, to not hitting a sibling. The behavior needs to be specific, or the child will not be able to identify what specific behavior needs to be repeated.

Rewards need to be motivating, desirable, or the system fails. If the reward is a basketball, it will motivate kids who love basketball, but will not motivate kids who have no interest in basketball. It needs to be affordable and feasible for the person or agency giving the reward. That is why doctor's offices don't give away basketballs, as it would get to be too expensive for every child to get a basketball and where would they store them? That is why often small inexpensive toys are used.

So where has society failed? I believe society really tried to harness this great technique to create a better, more kind, compliant society, but it hasn't worked for several reasons. The first is that the behavior doesn't always need to be rewarded. When my child gets his teeth cleaned, he doesn't need a reward for going to the dentist. I want him to learn that getting your teeth cleaned is just something humans need to do to keep their teeth for a long time. Now if he has to have a filling, or something painful, then getting a reward for enduring the pain could be helpful. Why? Because the 2nd time he has to have a planned painful event at the dentist, he is going to be reluctant to go. If the reward was not just for "attending" the visit, but enduring pain, it would make more of an impact. So, in my opinion, the wrong behavior is being rewarded.

The other aspect as a society is the reward. Most schools and office have very similar rewards, such as stickers, pencils, erasers, etc. When was the last time your child begged and pleaded with you at the store because they wanted a specific pencil? These rewards are not motivating, except for just a few. You know this to be true when a child spends a long time at the box digging and digging for something, anything. The truth is that they already got a pencil at school, a sticker at the dentist, and now can't find anything of value in the current box.

What about the rewards of playing on a team? The idea behind all players getting a ribbon or trophy came about when some kids were feeling excluded. The new system was created for a sense of inclusion. Teams are a little bit different system. The reward is for an achievement, basically a behavior that is very good based on a specific skill. As we watched the Super Bowl this weekend. One team won and one team lost. The team that won felt good, ecstatic. The team that lost were sad, angry and disappointed. The team that won got a huge trophy, gave speeches, and recapped their success. They were the focus. Why? Because they achieved a skill, a success, and a reward for their success. It is normal for the other team to not feel good, which is the basis of competition. Both teams were very good, but one was better and only one could win.

When children are young, all children getting a ribbon makes sense, because the reward of such a ribbon is exciting, i.e. the reward is motivating. Around the age of 7 or 8, children can differentiate between merit rewards and participation rewards. Although the exclusion issue was resolved, it created a new problem, the lack of desire to reach for a merit reward. Would we have any Olympians if they did not strive for a larger reward? In life there are so many things that need to be strived for from grades to job placements to financial goals.

Another issue this global reward system has created is the concept that all rewards are external (a physical item). Internal rewards are those that satisfy the soul. The internal satisfaction that a behavior is good or right is a much longer lasting effect than any external reward. When a child says, "I'm not doing X, because I'm not getting Y." that tells you his motivation is external. He does not have the internal motivation to perform that behavior. That is where we have failed. We had good intentions, but need a different approach.

So, what do we do now? If you have a reward system in your family or at your office. Evaluate the use of it. Ask yourself what specific behavior am I rewarding? What rewards do I use? Am I getting the results that I need? You might want to call a family meeting to explain the changes to your system. You may need to redefine rewards at your office, so one basket is for large procedures, or another basket is for older children. Or, you may decide not to give rewards at all. I used to have a treasure box that kids would get something when they left, but when I evaluated what I was rewarding I determined to do away with the chest. I donated the items to the school.

Remember that rewards need to be for specific behaviors and motivating. Remember that you are not alone if you have misused a reward system, even I have failed. Try to teach and instill intrinsic rewards any time you can. Each time you can encourage intrinsic rewards, you are building that child's self esteem and self efficacy. Have faith that kids can do it. They are stronger than we we think.

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