Four things I do instead of giving my children rewards

February 10, 2014 · 25 comments

The reaction I get most often when someone hears I don’t reward my children is, “So how do you get them to do anything?” (There is a similar reaction when I say I don’t use punishments either, which you can read about here).

My typical reaction is a stammering, “ummm, I dunno? They just do it, most of the time.”

I’d like to provide something a little more thoughtful than that.

Why I don’t give rewards to my child:

1. I don’t want them to live with the expectation of getting something in return. 

2. I want them to know my love for them is unconditional. It is not contingent on their completion of tasks or removed for failing to do them.

What we do instead:

 1. I acknowledge no matter what I do, I cannot “motivate” my children because my children only have internal motivations. If I offer my children rewards, it makes whatever actions they need to earn them conditional. I don’t want my children to do x, y, or z because they want yummy food to eat, or special time with a parent, or something shiny and pretty.

It feels manipulative and controlling to me: I’m bigger, stronger, smarter, and know exactly what things make them excited, so I can use those things to get them to do what I want them to do. I know that’s not the intention of rewards, but it is what they are. The thought of someone doing that to me makes me squirmy, so I commit to not doing that to my children.

It makes me step outside the “how can I get my kids to do” box and remember I want my relationship with them to be about so much more than control.

2. I trust my kids and I basically want the same things in life. We want to be loved. We want to feel secure. We want to have people we can rely on, and shoulders to cry on, and someone to turn to when we have something exciting and happy to share. We want to be healthy and have a nice place to live and nice toys (whether that be an iPhone or a matchbox car). So I trust we work towards the same things.

This doesn’t always mean we want the exact same things at the exact same time, but it also doesn’t mean there is a free-for-all at the house. That’s the trade-off of control for trust. I ask my kids to do things, and they can say no. Which can be aggravating. Which leads to . . .

3. If we have days when we’re not working towards the same things, I figure out why. Have I been paying enough attention to them? Have I been feeding them nutritious food? Are they getting enough rest? Are the boundaries I created too harsh or too lax? Do they have enough responsibility? Are their everyday challenges too great?

The tricky thing about it is I can’t ask all the questions with the express purpose of wanting my kids to listen to me. My kiddos know when they’re being manipulated, and it violates our trust. When things aren’t going well, I have to chuck my agenda out the window and reconnect. There is no shortcut with that.

Children grow and change every day, so their needs are moving targets. I don’t always get it right. Sometimes we have bad days where nothing is done around the house and we’re all grumpy at each other. But as I get better at it, we have more and more days where everything hums along and we all go to bed feeling calm and loved.

4. I trust my children’s own sense of accomplishment is enough for them. Actually, I think their own sense of accomplishment means more to them than anything I could give them.

Whatever it is in life I could want for my children, they want it more. Whatever I can dream for them, they can dream bigger. Whatever goals I could set for them, they set loftier. Because it’s their life. There is no reward I can give them that matches the satisfaction they feel for accomplishing their own goals.

To give them that, I give up control for trust. I trade my agenda for our collective well-being. And to my utter amazement, our home has tidy rooms, we have a well-kept car and orderly toy shelves, my children are neat and clean, they share freely, are polite, social, confident, and so much fun. They cherish all these accomplishments and more as much as I do, and are completely secure in knowing none of it will be taken away.

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Julia February 10, 2014

Your second link above to where you talk about punishment goes to a post with a broken link at Just West of Crunchy. Thought you might want to know!

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2 Suchada @ Mama Eve February 10, 2014

Thanks for letting me know, Julia! I removed it :)

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3 Jeanne-Marie February 10, 2014

Love it, you have hit it on the nail once again.

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4 Suchada @ Mama Eve February 11, 2014

Thank you, Jeanne-Marie!

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5 Shannon February 11, 2014

Thank you for your wonderful posts. I have a daughter that is 2 (about 27 months); she is a really good listener, and we also don’t use rewards or punishment. I often joke to my husband that we got really lucky with an easy kiddo, but he then reminds that we really did something right. Of course, like any other toddler, she has her difficult moments, but overall she is just plain easy. I’m pregnant with my 2nd (a little boy!) and I’m excited to employ RIE all over again to see the results. Seeing posts like this keeps up my confidence as a parent, so thank you!

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6 Suchada @ Mama Eve February 11, 2014

Shannon, I’m so glad! Congrats on your second baby — I wish I’d known about RIE when all of mine were babies. It definitely makes life easier!

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7 Rebecca Hachmyer February 11, 2014

Sounds like Self-Determination Theory in action! Did you get a chance to look through the works of Grolnick and Kohn?

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8 Suchada @ Mama Eve February 11, 2014

Hi Rebecca, sadly, I have not . . . I have stacks of books I want to read and those are on my list. But in reality, I probably won’t get to them until my husband returns from deployment. As helpful as my kiddos are, taking care of three on my own doesn’t leave much time for much else :/ I’m so glad you told me about them, though, because they sound right up my alley.

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9 J. Marie February 12, 2014

I second the Kohn recommendation. :) Unconditional Parenting was an eye-opener for me. (As a public school teacher, I use a lot of his ideas about education too.)

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10 margarita February 11, 2014

This generally resonates for me, and I have been trying to parent in this way, albeit imperfectly. I’m curious about how you (or other guests) might see a few situations: 1) Do you see it as acceptable to say something to the effect of, “We need to clean up before we can go to the park?” (And then accept if the child chooses to not clean up and not go to the park….) 2) If a child chooses not to clean up, do you eventually step in to clean up yourself, or do you let the mess pile up and become more daunting? 3) The most vexing problem I have is with things that are health-related. For example, my 4-yr-old has severe constipation (tied to a number of other health concerns) and is supposed to drink about 2x as much liquid daily as she would drink of her own accord. I have explained, I have encouraged, but I have not been able to convince her to increase her liquid intake by the needed amount. I am extremely reluctant to offer rewards, and I suspect it would backfire in the long run. BUT I don’t see a good way forward w/o rewards either. Would love your thoughts.

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11 Suchada @ Mama Eve February 11, 2014

Hi Margarita, your comment has made me think quite a bit. For the first question, I try very hard not to get into power struggles with my kids. Setting up a situation where we all want to go somewhere, but going there is contingent on every single person in the house cooperating within a certain time frame is pretty high-stress. So, in general I decided if I want the house clean before we go somewhere scheduled , I need to be prepared to do it. However, I do think it’s reasonable to have smaller “leaving the house” routines in place for routine outings. For instance, before we take my oldest son to school, both boys have to clear their breakfast dishes from the table, brush their teeth, and make their beds. And if we’re not doing anything on a sunny afternoon and all the kids want to go to the park, I will tell them we need to pick up before we go (I also make myself available to help). But if there is something on the calendar that starts at a certain time, no. I just accept that those are not “teaching moments”.

I’ve made cleanups part of our daily routines. We make our beds when we wake up. We clear the table before we go to school. We put our dirty clothes in the laundry hamper before we get in the bath. We pick up our toys before we go to bed. So generally there isn’t an accumulating pile. My kids are still young and learning how to do everything, so I offer lots of help with new tasks. In the morning after I make my bed, I pop my head in their room and ask if they need help with theirs. At night we pick up the toys together. I also mentioned in another comment I keep available toys to a minimum — usually about five clear plastic trays with with a couple of different types of toys: legos, a train set, building blocks, matchbox cars, and action figures. This keeps the mess manageable for them, so they are more able to put things away on their own (and if I end up doing most of it, I’m not as aggravated) ;-)

As for the needing to drink more liquid, if it’s a health concern with serious consequences, I would find some kind of flavor and/or texture you can live with (healthy options could be lightly sweetened herbal tea, juices, or water kefir), then offer them to her for her to choose. Also make them available at her level so she can get them on her own without needing to get your help. If she’s refusing simply for the sake of standing her ground on something, that would be the time to go through the questions I listed in the post and figure out how to reconnect. Good luck! Send me an update if you try any of this. :)

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12 margarita February 16, 2014

Thanks, Suchada, for taking the time to respond — helpful things to think about. I don’t think my daughter is refusing to stand her ground in terms of drinking. She is simply not thirsty. (She’s capable of drinking a lot and getting her own water when she’s thirsty.) Offering a variety: I wish there were more things that she is able to drink. Right now, her extremely limited diet means that there are only 2 things she can drink outside of water that her stomach will tolerate. But I’ll still think more about how I can give her more choice and agency around the drinking. Really like that idea. Thanks again.

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13 Jessica February 11, 2014

Hello,
I was wondering how old your children are and when you began this practice? I ask because I have one child who is almost 2, and she is at the stage where reasoning and explaining don’t necessarily get us to understand one another’s purpose. Most of the time she’s just exerting her new-found independence, which I respect and try to foster, but I still can’t let her play with the light socket or go without pants :)
Thanks!
Jessica

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14 Suchada @ Mama Eve February 11, 2014

Hi Jessica,

I’ve never given my children rewards for doing things, and I’m actually a bit confused by your comment. My post was generally referring to rewards for desirable behavior, like making a bed or putting away toys. I wouldn’t offer a reward for not doing negative behavior, either, simply because it doesn’t set a strong limit. If I had a two-year-old playing with a light socket, I would simply say, “That could hurt you. Let’s find something safe to play with.” And if my child wasn’t wearing pants when they needed to be (like at a store), I would tell them, “This is a place where you need to wear clothes. Would you like to put them on yourself, or do you want me to help you get them on?”

If a tantrum ensued from this, then it would be time to go through the questions I listed and figure out what’s going on. For me it’s often that I haven’t set strong boundaries. This is a really good article from Janet Lansbury that expands on this: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2012/09/respectful-parenting-is-not-passive-parenting/

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15 Joan February 11, 2014

Awesome post! I love it and do no rewards or punishments as well. I do run into roadblocks at getting all our needs met so it was nice to hear someone else’s perspective. Thanks! :)

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16 Suchada @ Mama Eve February 11, 2014

Joan, you’re welcome! I run into roadblocks, too! Every day I learn something new about myself and my children. Getting out of the “parents must control their children” paradigm forces me to really examine my relationship with them. I keep reminding myself “it’s not about perfection”, “it’s not about perfection”. Old habits of control die hard, at least for me. I can’t tell you the number of times I wished my kids would just do what I wanted them to do, exactly when I wanted them to do it! It’s a long, slow process of letting go. :)

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17 J. Marie February 11, 2014

We’re just starting to really explore this way of working with our girls, and I’m wondering about how to give up control with safety in mind. There is part of us that wants them to “obey” out of concern that we could encounter a situation where they’d need to right away as in moving cars etc. Perhaps I can hope that we’ll build so much trust that they’ll hear the desperation in my voice and respond appropriately? (Thanks for this post!)

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18 Suchada @ Mama Eve February 11, 2014

Safety is a non-negotiable. I’ve always been very clear about physical boundaries in our settings. Whenever we go somewhere, I let my kids know what the limits are, and if they aren’t able to stay within them, we leave. I also taught them about street safety from a very young age. I’ve never run into a situation where my children didn’t listen to me when they were in danger. If you think your children may not listen to you when you call out to them about their safety, it sounds like you might be having difficulty setting appropriate boundaries. I linked to a really good Janet Lansbury article in another response that is really useful. Good luck!

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19 J. Marie February 12, 2014

Yes, her article is wonderful. :) I understand what you mean about being passive vs. responsive (which doesn’t equal being authoritarian).

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20 Play at Home Mom February 11, 2014

I’m so in love with this post and could not agree more. LOVE LOVE LOVE!!!

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21 Suchada @ Mama Eve February 11, 2014

Yay! Thank you for letting me know, it warms my heart :)

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22 zian February 11, 2014

I am amazed your kids are keeping tidy. I grew up with a very tidy and organized mother. I am very disorganized and never cared if my room was clean. She used to make me clean my room but at some point she stopped…relaxing about it, perhaps, when I was 10 or 12 years old and her expectations for a clean room tapered off from there, though I knew she would have loved it if I kept my room clean she just did not force the issue. I did continue to have other chores around the house, like doing dishes, pet care, etc. I was highly motivated in school and got good grades.

Long story short, I still struggle with keeping my house up. Now I have a family and I am an adult with the adult housekeeping responsibilities. it was not until I was a wife and mother that I had any internal desire or care to keep organized.

I don’t know why I struggle with the issue and did not have the personal motivation I needed.

Just another aspect of allowing your kids to say no to chores…they might just say no indefinitely.

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23 Suchada @ Mama Eve February 11, 2014

Hi Zian, it sounds like you never really felt ownership of your room (I grew up in a similar situation). That’s one of the reasons I avoid the rewards with my children — I want their motivation to be theirs. But I struggle with it, because I highly value a clean house and it’s hard for me to let go when the kids say, “nah, I don’t want to pick up right now.” It’s hard to accept it’s their right to say that, and it’s also hard to accept they won’t grow up to be lazy brats (which is what our society implies happens to children whose parents don’t force them to clean their room).

On the other hand, I have to remember that even though sometimes I have to clean up with very little help from them, other times they do everything completely on their own. I give them as much choice as I can — they chose their bedding, their toys, the books they keep out. And I also try to make it easy for them by only keeping a few things out at a time. The rest stays in a cupboard and we rotate every few weeks. Sometimes it’s a pain to do so much, but honestly I think it’s easier (and better for all our psyches)than nagging all the time!

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24 Madeleine Cook February 12, 2014

Wonderful story! My children are 11 and 7. My husband and I raised our kids with a blend of many strategies, mostly labeled as “attachment parenting.” We don’t reward either. The statement you shared about if the flow isn’t happening then it’s usually fixed by re-connecting was/is SPOT ON! If there is discord, then I look at the situation with a bigger set of eyes. Tunnel vision with my kids has never been the way. I find that I just need to sit, slow down and come together with my child. Their needs and my needs aren’t always the same in the moment. We converse with our kids, but we don’t always assume we know better, our ideas are smarter etc… My husband and I respect our little children. We are in love with our little children. Control is not how my family works. All four of us are in this family, all four of us live in this same house, all four of us have immense peace. The laundry is in the basket, the dishes are in the sink, the books are on the shelf (when they need to be)No bribing required. It works!

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25 Suchada @ Mama Eve February 12, 2014

It makes me so happy to hear stories of families that “work”! Yay for you guys!! <3

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