Ever since I began working with kids and families, the benefits of the many reward systems used to tame the wild and unwanted behaviours in children have been lauded by the experts who created them far and wide.
And lots of parents bought into these programs, ever-diligent, ever-desperate, for help, for advice, for just a little peace and quiet. While these experts, including extremely well-regarded and knowledgeable psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers whom I admire and respect, were founding their programs on research that was current at the time, they were also (unwittingly perhaps) a part of a bigger movement in western culture.
That would be the culture of incentive programs where individuals have to prove their worth and perform in order to be rewarded. But after reading some solid research about motivation and what fosters it, I'm discovering that incentive programs may work in the short-term, but not necessarily in the long-term.
My work with kids and parents backs me up. I can't even count the number of exhausted and demoralized parents who have walked in my office having tried every point, chip, gold-star program out there with little to no success. Parents get overwhelmed trying to keep track of each behaviour, with each penny that needs to be dropped in the penny jar (usually artfully decorated by the child as a way of getting him to buy into the program). What inevitably happens is the penny really does drop, and parents just give up because they don't have the energy or the stamina to keep these programs going with the consistency necessary for the program to even have a fighting chance of working.
Then what happens? Parents feel even more frustrated with themselves and their kids and the inner dialogue of failure begins to generate greater feelings of hopelessness and frustration. Kids also feel bad. Or that they're winning! But it shouldn't be this way.
Parents and kids are necessarily going to be at odds from time to time. That's healthy and normal. But when power struggles between kids and parents become the norm and are making everyone miserable, it's time to switch things up and think about tossing the traditional rewards programs.
After reading Daniel Pink's book, Drive, I'm now a full-on advocate of what I'm calling guerrilla rewards. Surprise your kid after she has done something well instead of dangling (with your white knuckles) that carrot in front of her.
What does this mean? An end to the conversation, "I brushed my teeth all week, now what do I get?"
instead, the reward comes unexpectedly, out of nowhere and fosters what Pink details as intrinsic motivation. You'll see, it's way more fun, and shockingly, effective! Everybody wins. It's not to say that there are not times when the carrot and stick approach can work, just be aware of its limitations.