As a father of two children under the age of six, you could say that their behavior is challenging at times. Then I would tell you, “You don’t know my kids. Their behavior is challenging all the time.” One day, my wife then came up with a great idea. Okay, realistically she borrowed it from a magazine or Oprah. Be that as it may, we decided to start the kids off on a behavior system known as the “Reward Jar.”
“Isn’t that just a cheap form of bribery?” I protested. But my arguments went unheard. My wife went through all the steps with the girls. They went out and bought jars and marbles and came home to decorate each jar with construction paper and stickers. Then, my wife laid down the rules. Each child would get a marble placed in their jar for good behaviors such as listening, cleaning their rooms or being polite, while they would get two marbles removed from their jar for bad behavior. Plus, my wife would often hand out random marbles to teach that being good has its own value—not just doing tasks to get rewards. Then, when the jars were full, each child was promised to receive a new toy.
Soon after, I noticed my daughters’ behavior getting better, but they started expecting rewards after everything they did. We couldn’t cross a street without the kids expecting marbles for their jars. This is when I started to question the practice and where my homework began.
At the end of the day, shouldn’t children behave without incentives or promises? As I did some digging, I found that many experts believe that not only are incentive programs ineffective, but in some circumstances they can even be harmful.
The entire argument boils down to the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. Extrinsic motivation occurs when the child performs a task to get a reward. In other words, the child is acting to get something outside themselves or the task performed (the treat). Intrinsic motivation comes from within the child, as the motivation for completing a task is simply self determination.
Speaking to long-term behavioral changes, intrinsic motivation (from inside the child) works better as children are taught not only to change certain behaviors, but also why they should correct themselves. Studies have also shown that extrinsic motivation (getting a treat) teaches children to perform the task in question using the least amount of effort needed. In other words, little Johnny will cut corners and throw all his clothes under the bed in order to clean his room quicker and get his treat. It should also be no surprise to hear that once the reinforcement (treat) goes away, the more likely that the new behavior pattern will decrease and eventually stop.
Intrinsic motivation (no treats) teaches children to select more challenging tasks, gain more knowledge from the task they are performing, become more creative and gain more pleasure from involvement in the task (even without the treat at the end). Why is this? The answer is simple. When a child is doing a task because he or she believes it is for the greater good (i.e. helps out the family or makes mommy and daddy proud) they are more likely to take their time and do their best, without cutting any corners. In doing so, they also become more intelligently involved in the task. They learn more and gain more pleasure knowing they’ve done a good job—as opposed to getting a small reward such as a candy bar or an extra hour of television. Teaching a child to be intrinsically motivated can be difficult to do, as it is a desire that comes from within. What you can do to help install these desires is to give positive feedback or provide relevant choices as your children exhibit correct or incorrect behaviors.
And so, even in my own household, the debate goes on. We still use the reward jars, but I refuse to take part in the activity. Sure it’s cute when they get a marble for their jar when mommy catches them cleaning up their rooms. But I wonder, once they get their VTech toys, will cleaning their rooms still be a priority? I’m hoping not because I love being right! I guess only time will tell.
For Further Reference:
Cheng, Y.-C., & Yeh, H.-T. (2009). From concepts of motivation to its application in instructional design: Reconsidering motivation from an instructional design perspective. British Journal of Education Technology, 40 (4), 597-605.
Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by Rewards. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.