How To Get Kids Motivated Without Using Bribes And Rewards

How To Get Kids Motivated Without Using Bribes And Rewards

“If you finish your homework on time, I will buy you ice cream.”
“If you behave at school, you can pick out a toy when we go to the store.”
“Stop calling your sister names and you can play with my phone.”
“Read 10 books this summer and you can go to the movies with your friends.”

Does any of this sound familiar? Many parents at some point or another use bribes and rewards to motivate their children. However, there are consequences to using these tactics

The problem with bribes

Parents often use bribes to get their children to stop doing something undesirable. For example, my youngest son hates doing homework and every night he throws a tantrum when it’s time to complete his work. Out of desperation and to avoid his melt downs, I bargain with him that he can play video games if he does his homework without screaming bloody murder. Once he hears that magical promise, the tears disappear and he finishes his homework in lightning speed. Mission accomplished, right? Wrong.
The minute I bribed my son I showed him the power of his tantrum. I rewarded his bad behavior and taught him that if he screams loud enough, he will get rewarded.

Bribes may seem to solve the problem in the short term. However, using bribes on a regular basis not only reinforces unwanted behaviors, it can also create a sense of entitlement in children.

Are rewards better than bribes?

Rewards might have a better connotation than bribes, but when used in excess, the outcome is the same. Over the years, I’ve created many reward charts to shape the desired behavior I wanted from my own children and also with the children I worked with. These charts were effective until they earned their first reward. After that, the results were mixed. In some cases, once the reward was removed, the desired behavior ended.

Another problem I found with doling out too much reward was that many children started expecting rewards for behaviors they should do regardless of getting a prize, such as using good manners, following the rules, and respecting others. In addition, when children are constantly rewarded, sometimes they develop a belief that they should only do things that they will be rewarded for.

So is there an alternative to bribes and rewards? Yes. Intrinsic motivation.

Building intrinsic motivation in children

Let’s face it, when kids get older, they will not be rewarded for every little thing they do. If they are motivated solely by rewards, they might have a difficult time adjusting and doing things on their own. This is why intrinsic motivation is so important.

Intrinsic motivation is when someone does something for the inherent pleasure they find in the activity or task itself. For example, a child might not need any prodding to practice soccer because they enjoy playing the game and will play because it makes them feel good.

Here are some things I do to foster intrinsic motivation in my children:

1. Encourage them to set their own realistic and achievable goals. When a child is able to set goals and take steps to reach them, it teaches them self-determination. It also shows them that their choices have a direct impact on whether or not they fail or succeed.

2. Create an environment that nurtures their self-worth and self-confidence. When a child believes in them self and their abilities, they are more likely to be motivated to do things without having a carrot dangled in front of them.

3. Discuss with them how they feel when they are successful. Have children explain how their success makes them feel. You want your child to be able to recognize their positive feelings as a reward in itself.

4. Limit external motivations. As I mentioned before, bribes and rewards might work short term. However, sometimes children become accustomed to getting rewards and are unable or unwilling to complete a desired task in the absence of a prize or treat.

5. Praise your child’s success. Be specific and let them know exactly what they did that is praiseworthy. Praise builds confidence and it also encourages children to believe in their own capabilities. When children believe in themselves and their abilities, they are more likely to be motivated intrinsically and don’t have to rely on bribes and rewards to perform.

Now I’m not saying you can’t ever use bribes and rewards to motivate children. The key is to use them in moderation because when used in excess, they minimize children’s intrinsic motivation. When a child lacks the ability to motivate them self, it becomes increasingly more difficult for them to reach their full potential.

Do bribes and rewards work for you?

If you like this article, you might also like Are We Praising Our Kids Too Much?


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  1. It is so coincidental to read this tonight. My 11 year old and I were watching a lady at CVS today with two children around 4-6 years old. They were waiting on their medicine and the kids were moving around, not being rowdy or loud, just moving like little kids do. She said to them if you will sit still and be quite I will buy you candy. They both dropped to their seats and sat in silence. They were both overweight. My son said “you never buy me candy and I always am polite and quiet in stores” He noticed that the kids behavior was bought: but at what price?

    1. That’s the million dollar question, what is the price for ‘buying’ our children’s behavior? Of course there is a place for rewards, however, when it becomes the primary method of getting children to exhibit desirable behaviors, there are real consequences. Thank you for sharing your insight and adding your thoughts to the conversation. I appreciate it!

  2. With a teaching degree, I am ALL about positive reinforcement. But here is the thing… my positive reinforcement is my words. I want my children in my classroom (and eventually my own kids) to feel intrinsically motivated by the triumph, the praise, the winning feeling! I agree with you, always giving kids something physical can ruin them!

  3. To some extent bribes can be a good things but only if they are used occassionally. When a child comes to expect a treat for doing work everytime then it becomes excessive.

  4. When my son started aiming for a higher level in his reading, we promised to give him a book if he can get a higher level. When he did get to the next level we bought him a book on that level. I think that rewards work as long as the reward will still help your kid to get their goals.

    This is such a nice read. #sharewithme

  5. This is such a great post and it’s definitely straight to the point. Not too long ago I realized how I was not rewarding my children with good words but instead rewarding them with bad foods or drinks such as candies and sodas. That’s not good for them nor me. It made me realize that I was supporting the epidemic of obesity in children and also being a VERY lazy parent. Now in my house there are no bribes and there are rewards but only in love and affection and also an allowance to help them balance money and they can only buy toys – no candies 🙂 . Very great post!

    1. Velaundra I think many of us parents have fallen into the same trap. When life overwhelms us it’s easy to take the quick way out. I like the idea of rewarding kids with love and affection. There is no better reward than that. Thanks for sharing your experience. I appreciate your honesty and positive feedback. I will definitely start looking for more ways to reward my children with love and affection.

  6. Such great insight in this post. I often find myself thinking “well I can’t give in now or he’ll think his tantrum was effective”
    It’s hard to teach intrinsic motivation but as you are pointing out, it might be easy to destroy it.
    Thanks for linking up #BigTopBlogParty

  7. Definitely with you on this! My parents would praise our successes and also had a “star chart” system where we’d earn stars for being awesome (aka practicing piano, doing our outside-of-school homework, chores around the house, etc.–the being a decent human + not throwing tantrums part was a silent understanding). When we earned up enough of them, my mom would have a “store” filled with stuff that she knew we’d been really wanting (for me, it was usually books 😀 ) that we could trade in our stars for. I think it worked out really well! I don’t want kids, but my brother said that if he ever has them, he’ll probably use that system too. :]

    1. That’s fantastic! I like the idea of rewarding “being awesome.” I don’t do that as much as I should with my kids. Thank you for sharing this because I really needed the reminder 🙂

  8. I try not to use bribes and rewards with my kids more of explaining things and how they should act and why things are the way they are but sometimes I have to use the bribery and rewards with two toddlers screaming over and over sometimes I have no other option and it makes us all happier and calmer but I think in moderation and certain circumstance it is ok. Great post. Thank you so much for linking up to Share With Me #sharewithme

    1. Using bribes and rewards in moderation is definitely OK. When done in excess is when I believe intrinsic motivation starts to be negatively impacted. Sounds like you have a good balance Jenny. Thanks for stopping by and for hosting Share With Me. It’s always a pleasure to link up 🙂

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