Why Bribes, Rewards, and (Certain Types of) Praise Don't Work
It’s important not to fall for the second, third, or fourth chance ploy. It is hard to resist getting sucked in because we feel sorry for our kids. “Poor little thing, he’s going to be so disappointed if he doesn’t get to go on the horsey ride in the store.” But by pitying our kids, we imply that we have no faith in their ability to overcome hardships, to conquer challenges, to learn from their mistakes, and to tolerate suffering.
Other times, we let kids off the hook because it is easier. It takes extra effort on our part to park the cart, drag a toddler to the car while he’s in the throes of a tantrum, and foist him on our best friend. But in my own experience as a mother—and according to the hundreds of parents, teachers, and children I’ve interviewed—calmly rendering an immediate logical consequence is infinitely more effective in extinguishing misbehavior permanently.
The most devastating repercussion of using bribes and rewards, however, is that when our kids grow older, the outside beacon that guides them changes from parental values to peer and pop culture values, and these influences often don’t have our kids’ best interests at heart. Almost all of the children I’ve interviewed say their peers pressure them to abide by questionable standards to be accepted by the group. Examples of such standards might include being physically attractive, wearing designer labels, dressing provocatively, acting tough, experimenting with drugs, alcohol or sex, and so on.
Praise as Reward
We often use certain types of praise as reward-like parental cop-outs to get our kids to do what we want them to do, think like we want them to think, and be who we want them to be. Some encourage them to assess themselves according to the expectations of others,
while others help them learn to assess themselves in an objective way, using those assessments as inner guides to help them learn and grow. In the following
types of praise, the first statement encourages approval-seeking and the second, self-reflection:
- Instead of using meaningless praise “Wow, you did a great job raking those leaves,”
try making observations: “Look at that! You raked ten bags full of leaves!”
- Instead of praising kids when they get good grades or win trophies, stars, and medals,
“Look at this! You made all A’s,” focus on the actions that were responsible for these things. “Wow, it looks like you put in a lot of hard work into math to earn that grade!”
- Instead of praising your kid as a person “You are such a good girl,” try praising her behavior, “You are playing so nicely with your sister.”
- Instead of praising your kids with your approval “I’m so proud of you,” try encouraging them to develop inner praise, “You must be proud,” or “I bet you’re proud,” so that they’ll reflect on whether they are and why.
- Avoid gushy, excessive, or indiscriminate praise. Kids can smell an ulterior motive a mile away. Overheard praise and silent praise like nods, winks, hugs, pats on the backs, smiles, and thumbs up are more powerful when it comes to inviting introspection.
Once we teach our kids to think for themselves, to understand that there are consequences for their actions and to know how to appraise their own performance and self-worth, we endow them with an inner compass that will help them thrive in life.
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