Sometimes as parents (or teachers) we are tempted to offer rewards to our kids in order to get them to behave the way we want. Rewards can vary from an immediate, “Good job!” to a piece of candy to the promise of a party. But the brain research shows us that rewards are only helpful for low-level responses and actually interfere with higher-order thinking, problem solving and creativity. However, there are some “real” rewards that are very motivating for most people:
(1) Doing something for which you have some talent. Everyone likes to do things that they are already good at doing. (And most of us avoid activities for which we inept.) This means we should find out what our kids are good at and give them opportunities to do just that.
(2) Having a choice. So much of a child’s life is guided by the adults around him—someone else is in control. Some psychologists feel the “terrible two’s,” for example, when the child is saying, “No!” to everything, is actually just a an attempt to take control—which is much more rewarding than being obedient. Other psychologists have found that a large component of happiness in life is feeling like you are in control of most of what happens to you. So give your kids a choice. It doesn’t mean they get to choose everything, but to choose between cheerios or rice crispies, between writing a description or drawing a picture, for example, should provide real rewards. (Neuroscience also shows this can lead to less aggressive behaviors as well!)
(3) Honest feedback. When I was a girl, my younger sister and I would sometimes ask our parents to judge which of our drawings they liked best. Since they always chose my sister, I got her to switch pictures with me and, sure enough, they chose mine because it was in her hands! I wish they had known, first of all, not to get sucked into judging, and secondly, to look for things they really could like in both pictures—strong colors, a funny shape, and so on. When I was 17, I wrote a terrible play. When my teacher gave me feedback, somehow he got me to see that the content of my play was way beyond my years but that I still had talent as a writer. I’ve always tried to follow his lead when giving feedback to children and adults: Show them the “best” you see in their work even if it’s something tiny, first; and then make one or two suggestions for improvement. Telling someone they did a good job when they did not is punishing, not rewarding.
(4) Having fun. If an activity is exciting or intriguing or just plain fun, it will be rewarding—even if someone makes a mistake or “loses.” Games of all kinds are good for the brain and highly rewarding—especially if we go into it to simply do our best and learn to shake off losses. Imaginative play is always rewarding, because no one ever loses.
(5) Positive emotions. We have built-in reward centers in our brains. When we feel positive, confident, optimistic, we are rewarded with happy neurotransmitters. We can help by being good role models and helping our kids find positive ways to recover from angry, sad or scared feelings. Playing with a pet, listening to favorite music, taking deep breaths, even counting to 10 will help our kids deal with stress and get back to positive feelings.
(6) Personally-meaningful experiences. When kids are involved in activities that are significant to them, they are deeply engaged and find real rewards. Working on an science experiment, putting on a “show,” mounting a recycling campaign, getting to lead a group, planting a garden, studying dinosaurs (or another favorite) are so much more rewarding than “drill and kill” to prepare for a test. Once again, we adults need to determine what is personally meaningful to them.
By the way, celebrations are wonderful if they are used to look back on great times or accomplishments, instead of being used as a reward for “being good.”