Parenting isn’t all that hard.
There’s really nothing to it except:
- Keeping your child alive
- Making sure they’re properly fed
- Getting them enough sleep
- Helping them do well in school
- Teaching them to be good, moral people
You know. Just those couple of little things.
And when it comes to getting your child to do, or not do, the things you need them to on their way to becoming fully-functioning and healthy adults, you often need a two-pronged approach.
You can use rewards, and you can use punishments or consequences.
When it comes to rewards for kids, what are some examples of good rewards you can use at different ages? Do rewards actually work? What’s the difference between a reward and a bribe?
We’re going to get into all of that below from a scientific standpoint.
(By the way, my favorite way of tracking good behavior and progress toward rewards is this adorable magnet chart from Melissa & Doug on Amazon.)
Scroll down for:
- Do rewards for kids actually work?
- Rewards vs punishments according to science
- The difference between rewards and bribes
- Examples of reward ideas for kids
- Free rewards for kids
- Rewards for teenagers or older kids
- Ideas for tracking reward progress (charts, jars, etc.)
Do rewards for kids actually work? What does the science say?
First, let’s actually agree on what a reward is.
The idea comes out of the notion of operant conditioning.
Operant conditioning associates a certain behavior, good or bad, with a certain consequence, good or bad.
A typical example might be your child’s behavior (whining) is associated with the consequence of you yelling at them. That’s a negative reinforcement or a punishment.
(Whether it actually works to reduce the behavior of whining might be another story, but we’ll get into that.)
An example of a reward would be your child asking nicely (saying please and thank you) for something and, in return, getting some extra screen time, dessert, or just verbal praise.
The idea of a positive reinforcement, or a reward, is to encourage a certain behavior.
Experts are mixed on the effectiveness of rewards for children. But in general, most scientific literature tends to show that rewards and punishments can both be effective when used properly in the right context:
For example, rewards and positive reinforcement are often best-used to encourage good or positive behaviors.
Punishments can be very effective at getting human beings, big and small, to stop or avoid negative behaviors.
The reason is the immediate connection between the brain chemicals released or overall feeling we get from a punishment or reward, and the action that initiated it.
Getting praise or positive reinforcement feels good! And when we can immediately connect that good feeling to the positive behavior, our brain will start to anticipate that good feeling and encourage us to continue that behavior.
The same works for punishments and feeling bad when we do something wrong.
It’s a little harder for our brains to make the connection between failing to do something good and getting punished, or not doing something bad and getting a reward.
There’s also some expert research and opinion that states rewards are best utilized to encourage the completion of mundane tasks or behavior that need to be done. (Getting your kids to take out the trash on time, brush their teeth, or say ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’ … for example).
Offering tangible rewards for a behavior that should be inherently fun, interesting, or rewarding (like playing nicely with friends) could have more negative side-effects than positive.
Now there are lots of caveats, pitfalls, and other factors to consider when talking about rewards.
- Extrinsic vs intrinsic rewards
- Tangible vs verbal rewards
- The long-term effect on the ability to self-motivate
- Rewards vs punishments for different ages
- And the danger of accidentally turning rewards into bribes
In truth, it’s far more than we could possibly get into here.
But in general, it’s relatively safe to say that if you’re strategic about the way you implement rewards in your household, they can be a great tool for encouraging positive behavior out of your kids.
A word of caution from the experts
I spoke to Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore, the psychologist and parenting expert behind the book Kid Confidence (click to check it out on Amazon).
She advises that rewards for kids have their place, but they have to be used properly.
“A lot of times when parents offer rewards, they do it ineffectively,” she says. “They’ll offer a big reward, a material award, an award that comes a long way out, or rewards for things that aren’t entirely in the kids’ control.”
It’s hard for kids to tie the reward to the desired behavior when there’s too big of a time delay.
And when rewards are too tangible (toys, stickers, desserts), the incentive system can backfire.
“Offering rewards can sometimes lead to a very unattractive bargaining attitude with kids where they ask, ‘What do I get if I do this?”
Instead, Kennedy-Moore offers a few reward alternative that parents should consider before resorting to handing out lollipops 24/7:
Rewards usually imply that the reason your child won’t do what you’re asking is simply motivation.
That’s often not the case, and there may be other factors (for example, if your child won’t stay in bed, they may be having anxiety from being left alone or simply aren’t sure how to go to sleep properly.)
Try getting them involved in the solution.
“Ask them, ‘How do we solve this?’ and see what they say,” Dr. Kennedy-Moore says. Their first suggestions may be unreasonable, but keep digging and workshopping with them until you can come up with a workable compromise.
“If the kid can think through the problem, understand someone else’s perspective, and weigh different alternatives, that’s a glorious thing.”
Set them up for success
“The weakness with rewards and punishments is that the behavior has already happened,” she says.
Can you alter your routine or the child’s environment to better encourage wanted behaviors or discourage unwanted ones before they happen?
If you know your child gets hangry and throws a tantrum before dinner, can you prepare for this ahead of time with a late snack instead of offering a reward for better behavior?
Kids, like all of us, crave control over their lives.
Instead of offering them a prize for doing what you want, perhaps try offering them a choice between two acceptable options.
“Do you want to brush your teeth before or after you put on pajamas?”
The fact that they will get in their pajamas AND brush their teeth is a given, but you can give them some control over how it happens and they’ll usually be more likely to cooperate.
As you read through this list of potential reward ideas for kids, keep these points in mind.
A small treat or tangible reward here and there isn’t the end of the world, but it often isn’t the best way to deal with bad behavior.
(Here are some good one-liner canned responses you can use to address bad behavior when you feel yourself getting frustrated.)
What’s the difference between a reward and a bribe?
This is an awesome question, and I was wondering the same thing doing this research.
The line is thin, blurry, and not always clear.
But there are a couple of key difference between a reward vs a bribe.
Typically, a reward:
- Is planned ahead of time
- Comes with clear expectations
- Is given after some positive behavior
Bribes, on the other hand, are:
- Often given spur of the moment
- Usually are a desperate attempt to quickly stop a negative behavior
The actual physical content of the reward doesn’t matter, it’s really all about the context and how it’s offered.
For example, say you’re on an important phone call for work and your toddler won’t stop yelling, grabbing at you, or playing too loudly.
You calmly explain that you need to finish the phone call and ask them to play quietly until you’re done.
But they don’t stop!
So you decide to offer them a piece of candy to quiet them down and get them to listen to your instructions.
That’s a bribe.
It’s a reward born out of a moment of chaos, not planned ahead, and in some ways, it’s actually reinforcing the negative behavior (yelling) and not the positive behavior of listening.
The same situation could be handled differently if:
- There’s a clear expectation that your toddler is supposed to listen to your instructions after the first ask
- When they do a good job, they might get a treat as a reward
- If they do this in the moment while you’re on the phone and listen properly, the candy works as a reward for the good behavior
- If they don’t meet the expectations, then they don’t get the reward
It’s kind of a subtle difference, and the piece of candy remains the same, but the context around how the candy is used completely changes the impact.
Just remember, if you feel like you just got tricked into giving your child a reward for bad behavior, and you worry you might be encouraging them to do it more…
Chances are you’re using bribes, not rewards.
However, bribery is best described as a pattern.
Offering up a candy bar or letting your kid use your cell phone to play a game when things are really hitting the fan isn’t the end of the world, but if it’s consistently your preferred way of handling a crisis, it may be time for a new strategy.
Examples of reward ideas for kids
OK, let’s get into some actual examples you can start using in your own life and household
Rewards can take lots of different shapes, sizes, and forms.
There can be little, tiny doses of verbal praise for everyday behaviors.
Or you can build and build until your child earns a massive trip to Disney World.
It’s really up to you how you do it!
But below are dozens of ideas you can use, broken down into various categories:
Verbal and/or Praise Rewards
Rewards don’t have to cost anything.
Sometimes a simple pat on the back or some verbal recognition of the behavior is all it takes to encourage a kid to keep it up.
(Dr. Kennedy-Moore is a fan of specific, verbal praise. “Children love to please their parents,” she says. “We want to make sure we are pleasable.”)
(These are all 100% free, and so are many of the options further down the list.)
- Say “Good job”
- Give a high five
- Give a hug
- Say “I’m really proud of you”
- Say “I appreciate your patience/hard work/listening/other behavior”
- Say “You’ve really made progress on (X behavior), good work!”
Foods, snacks, desserts, and treats can be amazing rewards for younger kids.
Young kids and toddlers don’t have a lot of control over what happens in their day, so when they get the chance to make a choice about what they eat, they can get really excited.
Again, it’s very important to use tangible rewards and treats properly and not as your primary means of teaching appropriate behavior!
- Let them choose what to make for dinner at home
- Let them choose where to go for dinner
- Let them choose a dessert to bake at home together
- Give them a small piece of candy
- Go out for ice cream
- Let them earn an indoor picnic
- Give a favorite snack of their choice (applesauce, crackers, etc.)
- Make hot chocolate together
- Make a special breakfast before school
- Give them a piece of their favorite fruit
- Have an at-home pizza party
Be careful forming a habit of using junk food as a reward or bribe too frequently!
But as a treat every now and then, it can be pretty effective.
Other Tangible (-ish) Reward Ideas
Especially when it comes to younger kids, there are all sorts of little small tokens, trinkets, and toys that get them really excited.
Plus, there are so activities they love, many of which you can do together.
(That makes it a reward for them AND you!)
Some of these might make excellent rewards:
- Buy them a new book
- Let them choose a movie to watch together
- Give a little bit of extra screen time
- Buy them a new craft or more art supplies
- Play a new or old favorite board game together
- Let them pick what to listen to in the car
- Allow them to get something from the coin-machine at the grocery store
- Take them to pick out a toy at the store
- Do an at-home science experiment together
- Bring them a new sports ball (soccer, frisbee, football, whatever they’d like!)
- Help them put on a temporary tattoo
- Let them stay up 15-30 minutes longer before bed
- Let them sleep in 15-30 minutes later, if they will!
- Help them build a fort
- Let them sleep in your bed or in the living room (if age appropriate… and just this once!)
- Take them to a new or old favorite playground
- Skip a chore of their choice
Big Reward Ideas
Sometimes when you’re trying to instill a habit, it helps to have something bigger your child can build up to after some number of successive days.
This could be something as simple as a fun dinner out, all the way to a family trip to Disney.
It’ll all depend on your budget and how important the behavior is.
(Sometimes parents break out the big guns to encourage the potty training process!)
- Take a beach vacation
- Take a kid-friendly cruise
- Go to an amusement park
- Buy them a new bike or tricycle
- Make a big upgrade to their bedroom (new bed, new paint color, etc.)
- Get them a new pet
- Buy them their own age-appropriate device (tablet, phone, etc.)
- Let them have their first sleepover at a friend’s house
- Go see a special movie in the theater
- Go to the zoo
- Go to a children’s museum
- Take them to their first professional sports game
- Give them chores or extra responsibilities (yes that’s right… Toddlers and younger kids crave more responsibility)
- Plan a scavenger hunt
- Camp out in the backyard
- Have a “Yes” day where you say Yes to whatever they want (within reason, budget, and safety)
Reward Ideas for Older Kids & Teenagers
Unfortunately, at a certain point stickers and pizza parties just aren’t going to cut it anymore.
Somewhere around middle school or high school, your reward strategies are going to have to evolve.
Here are some basic ideas to get you started with teenagers:
- Let them have a bunch of friends over to the house
- Start teaching them to drive
- Offer to let them take the car out
- Buy them tickets for a concert (without you!)
- Let them sleep in later
- Let them stay out later
- Buy them a cell phone
- Buy them a laptop or tablet
- Get them a new video game or video game system
- Let them play hooky from school with you and spend some quality time together
- Let them try a sip of beer or wine (I said A SIP… A SIP!!!)
- More screen time
- Give them a budget to makeover their bedroom
- Take them shopping where THEY want for some new clothes
How to keep track of chores and good behavior to earn rewards
The key difference between a reward and a bribe is that rewards are planned ahead.
There should be very clear expectations, known by all parties in advance, of what happens or what doesn’t happen when your child behaves a certain way.
It’s great to have conversations about this, but for a lot of younger kids and toddlers, it can be really helpful to have a system of some kind to track chores or good behavior.
Here are some examples that can get you started:
Chore & Behavior Chart
This is the exact thing we use in our house, but there are lots of different models and variations of this you can use.
You can even make your own (you’ll get great ideas on Pinterest).
Essentially, this is a chart you hang in a prominent place, like the kitchen, that lists out the expected behaviors from your toddler.
The chart we use from Melissa & Doug gives you a ton of options you can swap in and out from:
- Getting ready for bed
- Helping with chores
- Stop whining
- Treat people with respect
When your toddler does a good job with any of the behaviors, they can get a magnet for that day.
The idea is to keep track of how they’re doing in a visual way, and you can use this to build up to a big reward.
(Sometimes we’ll offer a special treat if our daughter gets 10 magnets in a week, for example).
I really like this chore chart from Melissa & Doug (Amazon link) but you can find other good ones or make your own.
Reward or Consequence Jar
This is a cool thing I’ve seen around.
It’s not so much about tracking progress as it is adding a little bit of fun and unpredictability to your reward system.
(They say the most powerful reinforcement schedule for instilling a permanent behavior is variable ratio, meaning rewards are disbursed for good behavior at an almost completely random, unpredictable rate.)
With a reward or consequence jar, you write down as many of the ideas from above, plus your own, on little slips of paper and fill a jar with them.
When your child does something really good, they get to pick a positive consequence!
You can also do this with negative consequences or punishment, but that seems a bit sadistic for my tastes.
Check out a free printable reward jar template right here.
Marble Jar Reward System
This is a really cool idea that’s a lot more general in nature than the chore chart.
In the marble jar reward system, you simply set up a glass jar and a bowl of marbles or other small trinkets.
Every time your child follows directions or meets expectations, you can place a marble in the jar.
When it’s full, they earn a big-time reward!
Think a trip to the zoo, movie night, pizza party, or even a big family vacation.
(Depending on how big the jar is!)
It makes a big, but delayed, reward seem a little bit closer each day.
All you need is a big old jar and a large set of marbles (Amazon link) and you can start this behavior-tracking system in your own home.
Some parents worry that using rewards and reward system for kids will undermine their child’s innate desire to do the right thing.
In other words, they think using rewards too much might ‘ruin’ their kid!
That’s pretty unlikely.
There is some research that suggests over-relying on extrinsic motivation and tangible rewards can be a negative thing in the long run, but as long as you’re smart about it and doing plenty of OTHER things as a mom or dad to raise good kids, chances are you don’t have to worry.
The one thing to remember is that when you use rewards in unplanned moments of chaos, that’s probably a bribe!
And bribing your kids too often might lead to some unwanted behaviors.
Good use of rewards means:
- Setting clear expectations
- Having conversations ahead of time
- Sticking to your guns
- Being consistent over time
Other than that, how you implement rewards for your child is up to you!
Whether you want to use free things like verbal praise and high-fives, or let them “earn” their way to Disney World, there’s plenty of evidence that suggests reward systems can really work.
Hopefully the ideas above will help you get started.
Good luck, parents!