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How to Use Rewards to Motivate Kids

Motivate your kids with the right kind of praise and rewards

Father reading book with daughter

We all need motivation to get things done, whether it’s hitting the gym or tackling a big project at work. And for kids, motivation is hard to come by. Clean their room? What for? Do their homework? But why?

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That’s why many parents use rewards. Pediatric psychologist Emily Mudd, PhD, explains how to use rewards and other tactics to get your kids off the couch.

Two types of motivation

If you know how motivation works in the brain, you can better understand why kids do — or don’t do — certain tasks.

Intrinsic motivation: For fun or pleasure

Intrinsic motivation means that you do an activity because it’s enjoyable. For kids, this might be video games or listening to their favorite music.

“When something is intrinsically motivating, you do it because it’s enjoyable and interesting,” says Dr. Mudd. “You’re not doing it to get a prize or receive recognition.”

Extrinsic motivation: To get an external reward

Extrinsic motivation is the opposite. You do something not because you inherently enjoy it, but because you want an outside reward or outcome.

“With extrinsic motivation, a child might study for a biology test because they want a good grade, not because they simply enjoy biology, or studying,” explains Dr. Mudd. “The child’s motivation lies in the outcome they want: a good grade.”

Should you use rewards for your kids?

“I often hear parents say that rewards are like bribes, which are wrong, but our society is built on rewards. They are all around us,” says Dr. Mudd. “We study to get an A on a test. We work to get a paycheck. If you weren’t being graded, you may not study as hard. If you didn’t get paid, you probably wouldn’t be as motivated to come to work.”

Rewards are a type of positive reinforcement, and they have their place in your parenting toolkit. “Certain tasks just aren’t intrinsically motivating for some children, like potty training, studying, or cleaning their room,” says Dr. Mudd.

This is where you use extrinsic motivation to encourage your child.

“You can offer your child rewards through something as simple as a sticker chart when they complete the desired task,” Dr. Mudd explains.

But there’s a right way to use rewards. Follow these tips.

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Use rewards sparingly

“Use rewards for one specific behavior at a time,” says Dr. Mudd. If you’re using rewards for multiple things, your child may start to expect them for, well, everything. This can overwhelm the child — and it can be exhausting for the parent to try to maintain.

Pair rewards with words of encouragement

When you use extrinsic motivation (rewards), back it up with intrinsic motivation. Tell your child why the task is important. Use encouragement while they work toward their goal.

Praise the process, not the outcome. “If a child builds a block tower and it falls over, tell them you see how hard they worked to build the tower,” says Dr. Mudd. “Acknowledge how hard a child studied for a test, don’t focus on the final grade.”

Praising something the child has control over helps them build confidence. They start to believe that they are capable of doing hard things.

Make the reward harder to get

If your child is reaching for a reward long after she has mastered the task, the reward has lost its effect.

To prevent this, make the reward harder to obtain as your child makes progress. Start with something small that they can achieve. Once they master that skill, up the ante.

“As you make it harder to get the reward, make sure it’s not overwhelming to the child,” says Dr. Mudd. “Try to find a balance between making it too easy and too hard.”

Don’t make it about money

Motivate your kids by giving them choices or extra family time rather than money.

“Make the child’s reward something that gives them a sense of control,” says Dr. Mudd. “This builds internal motivation because kids want to be heard and feel that they have a voice.”

Examples of non-monetary rewards include:

  • Choosing what’s for dinner.
  • Extra playtime with a parent.
  • Extra books at bedtime.
  • Extra time on the tablet.

Set SMART goals to build motivation

The SMART approach can help you set appropriate goals for your child.

SMART means the goal is:

  • Specific.
  • Measurable.
  • Attainable.
  • Realistic.
  • Time-specific.

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“You want your child to have a goal he can achieve in a reasonable time period,” says Dr. Mudd. “For example, have him focus on math homework for 10 minute without interruptions, or have him clean his room before dinner. The right, specific goals will build your child’s internal resilience and motivation.”

Use a different approach to stop bad behavior

If you’re trying to stop a bad behavior, don’t turn to rewards.

“Parents need to find out the ‘why’ behind a negative behavior,” says Dr. Mudd. “Connect with your child to figure out why they’re engaging in a behavior or acting out – is it lack of expressive language skills to communicate, feeling unheard, anxiety, etc- , rather than just rewarding them for not doing it.”

Notice kids’ efforts and praise them

“People of all ages love praise,” says Dr. Mudd. “Studies show that most adults find receiving praise from their manager at work matters more than an increase in pay. Being recognized for your work is incredibly important, whether you’re a child or an adult.”

When you praise your child, make it specific and about the process. Saying, “I love how you organized your room. I see you worked hard on that,” is more effective than a generic “Good job!” And not saying anything at all because they’re “expected to do it” is a motivation killer for anyone.

“Kids hear what they do wrong all day long,” says Dr. Mudd. “Noticing their good behavior — and saying something about it — is one of the best motivators of all.”

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