Reward Systems for Kids?

When Roni was eight, I got the bright idea that a reward system would help encourage him to read.  He seemed to like reading, but he rarely picked up a book.  And he seemed to tire easily.  A reward system, I thought, would give him the added incentive he needed to make the effort, and would help him develop good reading skills early on.  So I offered him an ice cream sundae or a two-dollar prize for each ten pages he managed to finish.  And I thought he’d be swallowing books whole in no time.


Boy, was I wrong!  Not only did my plan backfire, it seemed to have the opposite effect.  Reading became a chore, a bother.  For the first couple of weeks, he read more and proudly claimed his prizes.  But then he started finding creative excuses for not picking up a book.  “Mom, it’s not a good time to read – it’s raining.”  Or “I want to read, just not right now.”  In fact, he seemed to be less interested in reading than he had been before my brilliant scheme.


Well, as it turns out – I should have expected this result.  There is actual, real research that shows that reward systems for kids can actually diminish their interest in the very activities we are trying to encourage.


A fascinating study conducted by psychologists Mark R. Lepper and David Greene (from Stanford and the University of Michigan) found that preschoolers who were offered rewards to color lost interest in the  activity they had previously enjoyed. A bunch of kids who basically liked to draw were divided into three groups and asked to draw for six minutes:  One group was promised a reward (a certificate with a gold seal), the second group was given a surprise certificate at the end of the activity (but promised nothing), and a third group didn’t receive anything.


Over the next several days, the kids who had been promised a reward spent significantly less time drawing than the kids who had either gotten a surprise reward or had gotten nothing. The addition of an external motivation (getting a prize) had actually diminished their intrinsic, internal motivation to color.  It just wasn’t as fun anymore.


So before you implement a reward system for your kids, you might want to consider the negative long-term effects it may have. And you might want to look for ways of gently encouraging their internal motivation instead.

Then again, maybe a certificate with a gold seal is just a sucky prize.  What has your experience with reward systems been?


  1. Hi, found you on Bloggy Moms! This is an interesting thought process. It’s always better to develop an internal motivation, but of course, that’s also tough. I think it depends on whether you want to develop a healthy habit like reading, or just get some something done quickly, like cleaning up.

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