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.