Rewarding Kids For Following The Rules Is Actually Counterproductive, Says Expert

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Parenting brings on an awful lot of advice from friends and family and doctors, especially as our little ones start to get to the age where discipline needs to be introduced in some form, into their lives. There are two words that we hear so frequently that seem to go hand and hand with discipline: positive reinforcement. In a sense, we have also become conditioned to believe that this is the only way or the best way for our children to learn right from wrong, while they are on the path to making good decisions into adulthood, right? An expert is now stepping forward to counter that belief and says that rewarding kids for obedience is actually counterproductive.

NPR recently shared an interview with parenting educator and journalist Katherine Reynolds Lewis, and author of the new book, The Good News About Bad Behavior. During the interview, she cautions parents against using positive reinforcement.

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Her beliefs are based on a lot of research that has been done on the subject, as she supports the idea that for both children and adults, if they are rewarded over and over again for a specific behavior, that it becomes less desirable to keep doing in the long run. Basically, your child will be less motivated to keep performing that action.

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“If the child is coming up with, ‘Oh, I’d really like to do this,’ and it stems from his intrinsic interests and he’s more in charge of it, then it becomes less of a bribe and more of a way that he’s structuring his own morning,” says Lewis.

For instance, Psychology Today conducted a study back in 2016, that set out to take a closer look at how Positive reinforcement can undercut a child's intrinsic motivation. They looked at 48 3-year-olds, who chose how many marbles to share with a puppet. During the game, it seemed as if a child got three marbles,  the puppet got only one. Though, half of the children noticed the difference and gave the puppet a marble without further prompting. If not, the puppet said, "I only got one marble" and then "I want to have as many marbles as you" and then, if needed, "Will you give me one?" When the child would offer up more marbles, they would get praised.

After some time, they tested the same children again, except they replaced the sympathetic puppet with an impartial experimenter. The children who had been rewarded for their sharing went on to share less. In fact, they went on to share less even than kids who had received no praise. It wasn't that praise was great and an extrinsic reward,  it was that rewarding a child's sharing actually did harm, leading to less sharing than if the researchers offered nothing at all.

As an alternative to rewarding positive behavior, Lewis encourages parents to use strategies that build on mutual respect and a shared desire to get through the day in a much smoother manner.

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