Gold Stars and Gifts

We all love rewards (or treats, as I call them). It can make my day if my boss gives me an atta girl or if I receive a compliment on my new outfit. We can even use rewards to get pets (and people) to do what we want.

Our dog Legolas (whose namesake is the head elf in Lord of the Rings) loves treats. We used them as a puppy to reward him for making the grass his toilet. Today, when he pretends to ignore my call for him to come inside, I can offer him a treat to get him to comply.

The tangible rewards we receive for doing what we are asked to do are called external rewards. They come from outside of us. These external rewards can be very powerful for a time, yet the goal is for people (and even pets) to enjoy success so that these external rewards are no longer necessary for performance. Instead, they receive an internal reward, a positive feeling of accomplishment.

The current trend in education is to provide external rewards to children to do what is expected of them at school. While this was exciting for our children at its commencement, the ________ (insert your child’s school mascot) Bucks were not treasured as the school year neared its end. In fact, I found several of these Monopoly money-looking items around our home and gave them to the children (ages 10 and 12). They said to throw them away, that they didn’t mean anything. The value of these external rewards had worn off not only for my children, but even for their friends.

It’s fine, and expected, to reward our little ones for doing their business in the potty, for completing their chores, or for meeting our expectations. However, the goal is to help our children learn to praise themselves and to receive internal motivation.

What do children often do when they don’t get what they want? They throw a tantrum. So, consider the implications of continually providing external rewards to our children. What will happen when the teacher does not give them the grade that they think they deserve? What about when their boss does not provide a prize for arriving on time to work each day? What might happen when they cook dinner one evening or wash the laundry, and there is no treat provided? Tantrums may ensue. These tantrums generally won’t looking like a child screaming and crying on the floor, but they will likely involve whining and an attitude of entitlement.

I have been around many children, and several adults, who (in some ways) act like children. I don’t mean the child-like fun-loving spirit and willingness to explore. Instead, these adults think that they deserve things, that they are entitled, and I suspect that I know the origin of this attitude. The external rewards from their parents never ended.

There is good news! If you constantly give your children external rewards, you can taper it. Begin by bragging on your child. While this still provides an external reward, it gives you a chance to model how your child can learn to talk to him/herself. You can also begin to coach your child in how to receive internal rewards.

When your child does something well, say things like this:

  • Aren’t you proud of yourself? What a great accomplishment!
  • You worked really hard on that project. Good work!
  • How did you feel when you helped your friend? What a nice thing to do!
  • I’m so glad that you worked hard in school. It’s fun to make good grades!

In addition to this, resist the urge to buy your child something each time he/she behaves well in a store. That’s expected behavior. When your child does what’s expected (like chores, doing his/her best in school, and being kind to others), do not provide external rewards. Instead, hug your child and thank him/her for doing what responsible people do. Begin to build your child’s desire for internal rewards rather than external ones.

By moving from an external reward system to an internal reward system, you will help your child mature and grow up to be a more responsible adult. You may even want to give yourself an internal gold star for this!



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