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How to Give Rewards So They Actually Work

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Rewarding good behavior can be tricky. Here’s an example of an idea I had that I thought was good. My kids wanted a fish. I wanted them to do what I said the first time they were asked. So I bought a container and some little poof balls. Every time they did what I said the first time, they got a ball. Full container = fish. After launching the plan, I actually counted how many balls it would take to reach the goal and get the reward: 120. But my kids were 3 and 4 years old. Oops. We eventually got the fish, but I had to get very liberal with my poof ball distribution!

We can have the best of intentions when rewarding good behavior in our kids, but sometimes, moms, we just get it wrong. If you often end up frustrated and your kids end up confused, you might be missing one of these 5 essentials for a reward that actually works.

1. Make it immediate.

Just like it sounds, this step means that the reward should happen soon after the good behavior. As kids get older, you can let them wait longer, but you still don’t want to go too long. For kids five and under, the reward should happen the same day.

At first, my plan to reward with the tiny ball was helpful because I could hand it over right when my kids did what they were asked. But after a couple of days, the little poof wasn’t enough motivation because the end reward was going to take way too long to arrive. Mom reward score: 0.

2. Get the size right.

Tap into your inner Goldilocks and try rewarding good behavior with something that’s not too big, not too small, but just right. If you think the reward is too small, keep this important tip in mind: Smaller and sooner is better than bigger with a longer wait.

Tap into your inner Goldilocks and try rewarding good behavior with something that’s not too big, not too small, but just right. Click To Tweet

I couldn’t get my kids a fish every time they did what they were told the first time. Not only was our tank not big enough, but that reward would be just too much. Rewarding too big leads to unrealistic expectations on behalf of your child. (So this means I get a new phone every time I get an A on a test?) Rewarding too small leads to a lack of motivation.

3. Be consistent.

If you’ve zeroed in on a specific behavior you’re working on, like my attempt not to have to ask my kids seven times to go brush their teeth, focus on it and be consistent. This means you don’t give it if your kids haven’t followed through on their end, despite any inconvenience or disappointment it might cause you.

It also might mean carrying a ticket with you in your purse in order to give a reward in public. Even though my poof ball system was flawed in some ways, this is one part I got right. I could just carry the balls with me and give one out whenever my kids earned it.

4. Make sure it matters.

The reward has to matter to your child. My sons make this hard for me. One loves ice cream and the other can take it or leave it, so I can’t use ice cream as a “team” motivation. You’ll probably notice that as your kids get older, what’s meaningful to them will change. For some kids, time alone with Mom is a great reward. As they get older, time with friends might be the thing that lights the fire under them.

Letting your kids determine the reward, like my sons and their fish, is a great way to make sure the reward is meaningful to them and not just another trinket or treat they’re not really interested in.

5. Switch things up.

We all like variety. Part of effectively rewarding good behavior is recognizing that even good rewards can become boring after a while. Your son might decide that the dollar store toys aren’t cool anymore, or your daughter will remind you she’s tried every flavor of ice cream at the local shop already. Switching up the reward will keep a kid’s motivation up.

You’ll also have to make changes to rewards as your kids get older. I long for the simpler days when a $3 fish was enough to inspire my kids to fall in line. It’s not easy to keep up with their changing preferences, but it’s worth it when you see the reward work!

What do you do to reward good behavior in your home?


If you won a big competition, what prize would you hope to receive?

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