Do rewards kill motivation? Talk amongst yourselves.

Amazon: Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes, by Alfie KohnThanks to a recent post, I just read an Alfie Kohn article (written in 1993) about how rewards get in the way of intrinsic motivation. Some of you have mentioned Kohn's name in the comments before, but I've never followed up on his work till now. Fascinating stuff — I intend to read more.

We've discussed this issue before (in the comments of the March 2007 post on how to use a star chart) but it's still nagging me. While I agree with Kohn in theory, I'm hesitant to generalize because I see my own children react differently to rewards.

One seems to focus almost exclusively on the prize, doing whatever must be done to get it while the underlying lesson often goes unheeded (Kohn's case in point). The other kid seems only marginally aware of rewards and is delighted to receive one every now and then, but, for the most part, seems to "get" the satisfaction of a job well done.

I say this without judgement — they're simply different kids — but their differences must be treated accordingly.

How does one spark a kid's sense of internal motivation?


  1. Sara says

    This is such an interesting issue, and a great one to raise for discussion, I think. I spent a lot of time during my undergrad and grad school psychology talking about this. The original studies show that rewards can undermine intrinsic motivation and creativity, but they were done with tasks that kids were most likely already intrinsically motivated to do. But, from a behaviorist perspective, if you’re trying to change behavior (i.e., no intrinsic motivation present), then a reward/chart system can be incredibly effective. Fading the reward over time while praising effort and emphasizing the child’s own feelings of pride, etc. should minimize any potential negative effects of using rewards to change behavior.

    And, you’re right; there’s individual variation in the response to rewards, just like in anything.

  2. Ln says

    I’m torn about this too. On the one hand, I will occasionally reward my kids for doing stuff around the house, but I don’t like institutionalized rewards. We briefly participated in our library’s summer reading program, and I did NOT like the impact it had on my kids. Suddenly when we read together, all they cared about was meeting the time limit set by the library which was shorter than our norm, and once we did the minimum, they were done. We dropped out of the reading program, and things got back to normal fairly soon.

    What I try to do is lead by example, avoid rewarding my kids for activities that should be their own reward (like reading), and use natural consequences to teach where it’s practical and not too harsh. Sounds crunchy, I know.

  3. Brian Broom says

    We have had success using a reward chart, but it is something we use very infrequently. Where it has been the most useful is in a ‘reminding’ or ‘training’ mode, where we are trying to teach a behavior.

    We had just moved to a new house, and our son was getting up multiple times at night before he went to sleep (3-8 times per night). We gave him a star for each night he stayed in bed. At the end of the week we did something special (I don’t remember what). We had no problems after that.

    As far as things around the house, there are things that we expect to be done without reward (picking up toys, cleaning room, puting away shoes, etc) but will give a reward for extra things (helping with yard work, etc).

    The last thing we have done (and this is ongoing, so I don’t know how well it will work) is with behavior at school (first few weeks of kindergarten). They do a daily green/yellow/red for behavior, and we have mostly greens with some yellows. What we setup is that he cannot play a computer game if he does not have green for that day. We chose this because it is setup as a positive instead of negative, and while it is his favorite thing to do after school, it is not the only thing he can do. We have also talked a lot, reminding him why it is important, and that we love him and are proud of him regardless of what he does. So far it seems to be effective, but I would encourage parents not to forget the communication part. Kids are not machines, the talks and why’s and questions and hugs are what makes it work.

    sorry for the long comment…

  4. marjorie says

    this year, the NYC department of education is going to begin paying students in underperforming schools for good grades. i viscerally feel this is a bad idea, but i can’t articulate why! (i know, not a helpful post.)

  5. mama uff says

    I recently saw a Connect with Kids news story called “Cash for Grades” on this very topic. My husband and I struggle with this issue because we don’t want to take away our children’s self-motivation but making them think there is always a reward. I do agree different things work for different kids. I actually purchased the above book by Alfie Kohn a while ago but never read it. Maybe now would be a good time!

  6. Bob says

    I think part of a reward system to to help establish a habit or pattern. The reward may be the impetus for a child to do something initially but it also helps create a pattern of good behavior or task completion.
    Once the habit is established, the reward should be removed or the bar raised.

  7. STL Mom says

    Oh, good, this justifies my complete inability to maintain any reward system for more than a day. We’ll spend an hour writing up the chart, choosing the stickers and the reward. Five minutes later, I’ve forgotten where I’ve put it and my daughter has lost interest in the reward.

  8. hedra says

    I’ve commented on this extensively before – I’m a big fan of intrinsic motivation. Sometimes the parent has to figure out what the child’s intrinsic motivation is, and then adapt the ‘system’ to that reward. And yes, for some kids, their intrinsic motivation is ‘getting stuff they want’ in a material sense, and that can work. What helps for me is identifying what the child WANTS as the reward – not what they’d ask for if you asked them (which is often ‘stuff’) but what they’re deep down jonesing for. That can then be used as a problem-solving trade, which, IMHO, is much more above-board than reward charts. Reward charts tend to present the idea that the child’s behavior change earns them the reward. What is really going on is that the parent has a problem, the child’s behavior change solves the problem, and the parent is willing to make some effort or spend some money to encourage or thank for the change that removes their problem. I prefer to keep it more ‘I have a problem, and you have a problem. I want you to do X so my life is easier, and you want to do Y or have Z because it would give you pleasure – but I’ve not been willing to do that. How about we work together. You help me solve my problem, and I’ll help you solve yours.’

    We’ve tried the reward chart thing, and like others here, it just dies out really fast. The link between action and reward is too disconnected most of the time. The only rewards that have stuck are the smallest ones – last year, we gave a quarter for every day G got his homework in early. But the reward was below his radar for ‘woo’, and we focused instead on the real (intrinsic) reward of how he felt getting it done. It didn’t take him long to decide (on his own) that all his ‘early homework money’ would go straight into his charity box. He basically morphed a non-intrinsic reward (the cash) right back into an intrinsic one (feeling good about giving to charities). So, hey, cool.

    The other chart thing we did was for staying dry at night, and that started out as a reward chart, but was really ‘if you stay dry x nights, you don’t have to wear the annoying goodnights until the next wet night,’ (cycling the system within itself), and then there was some kind of reward planned for some end point which I forgot, they forgot, and we ended up just using the chart to figure out what the pattern of development was, and what issues caused wet nights, and while the thing is still stuck on the wall next to our bed, we haven’t used it in who-knows-how-long.

    So, basically, we do half-assed attempts at reward programs, but … unless they’re set up as a one-for-one trade (you help me, I help you), they don’t seem to do much for us. And even then, usually we focus on just solving whatever problems are there, for whomever, and not on the trade thing (that’s just if there’s resistance or I’m running short on ideas).

    We’re also running out of consequences as a result, too. Even logical gentle ones seem to have just kind of… vanished. Not that we don’t have discipline, but we’re leaning way more toward the problem-solving side. Parent Effectiveness Training is another one (Kohn refers to it in his work) to look at that covers the same things – punishments/consequences are also not as useful as they seem. We’ve had much more success with just dropping the consequences and dealing with issues with ‘this is clearly not working for you, and it isn’t workig for me, either. How do we make this work for both of us?’ Interestingly, most of the time, when WE have a problem with how the kids are functioning, they’re having a problem with the same area of life. Maybe a different problem, but it is an area that isn’t flowing well for them. When they’re little, I focus a lot on solving their problem FIRST (often mine goes away as if by magic at that point), but as they get older, that’s more complex, and I’m finding that solving the problems in tandem works. Bonus, it keeps me from feeling so frustrated if a problem cycles or repeats over time. For example, B has always struggled with the getting dressed ‘on time’ in the morning. He’s almost 6, he CAN do this, it just doesn’t happen. So, we tried treating it as our problem first (we need to leave on time, we worry that we will be late if he’s not ready when WE think he should be), and his problem (he really doesn’t like interrupting the morning flow of joy with dull clothes-putting-on), and hey, presto, we started coming up with SOLUTIONS. Right now, it looks like getting dressed the night before, and just sleeping in the clothes, is working. I don’t care if he slept in them, he doesn’t care, mornings are easy when he does it. When he doesn’t do it (his choice), then the morning sucks, and he recognizes this is HIS problem, and he tries harder to remember how he feels, and is being more in charge of the dressing issue. When he’s in uniforms, that won’t work, and we’ll find another solution. But for now, we’re both happy. No consequences, other than the TOTALLY natural ones (that is, feeling grumpy the next day because getting dressed interrupted his morning). No logical consequences, punishments, rewards, anything. Just ‘problem solved all around’.

    And sometimes just stating that I have a problem is all that needs to happen – the kids just kick in, because, well, it feels good to help others with a problem, especially if one isn’t being blamed for it in the first place. We’d been trying to get the kids ‘motivated’ (ha) to help around the house, help with the daily tasks, etc. There was some progress – the cat care is a fave. But other areas… not so. But just placing it out there as OUR problem (parental), needing assistance, making it visible that we need the help, and suddenly, they’re HELPING. Without saying a thing, not even pointing out or asking. Just pitching in without a peep. Which is really what we’re aiming for.

    Okay, that was another long one. Coffee is here, have to go!

  9. MissM says

    I agree with Bob about a reward system helping to build a good habit. I would like to mention a series of books (one of which I’m reading) about the 5 Love Languages of Teenagers. Besides teenagers and 2 year olds being at similar “learning to separate” aspects of life ;) , each individual appreciates one of 5 ways to give. One of my sons feels loved when given a gift, the other one appreciates attention, just to tease 2 of the 5 :) Very enlightening concept, I believe.

  10. hedra says

    Miss M, I was trying to figure out a way to work in the 5 love languages thing, but I was too wordy to start with. Thanks! I do use this in my mental assessment of internal motivation. The gifts thing is a big issue for both the older two, but we’re kind of eh on that, so we lean on their other preferred love languages (physical contact, together time/parent-child dates… not sure how those are worded in the books, but that’s how they play out here).

    I’ve never read the books, but I did read the reviews of the 5 Love Languages for Children book (something like that), and it was definitely useful. But I just kind of needed the nudge, not the whole package, I think.

  11. kittenpie says

    If I recall my psych 101 correctly, rewards at random, non-predictable intervals should give the best results… You know, if our kids were rats or pigeons or whatnot.

    I do think rewards for things they should be doing anyhow is a little silly, seems like lowering our expectations somehow. Instead, we for now (she’s 3) work on a taking things away for negative behaviours system, but things will morph as we go, certainly, to include more chores and allowance and so on, so I think we’ll have to find the balance as we go.

  12. Angela, Mother Crone says

    This is interesting, and I have to admit to using my own kids as case study topics over the years. As homeschoolers, I deal with motivation issues in a much more personal way. I have found that personal motivation is directly correlated with maturity. My daughter is one of those wise old souls, and when she sets her mind to something works tirelessly to get it. My son, while older, is more immature (Mr. Fun) and only becomes motivated through external comparisons through observing his peers. He is just beginning to mature to the point of wanting to achieve for its own sake, but I feel a lot of dialogue about work ethic/success/ pride has started to take root.

  13. wwbd says

    It’s more about the size of the reward or punishment. You want to stimulate a sense of cognitive dissonance so that the child can not reconcile the behavior with the small reward or punishment so resolve the dissonance by internalizing the behavior. In other words the kids think, “Hmmm that was a pretty tiny reward, I must be getting good grades not for the $1, but because I enjoy getting good grades.” I actually think this works best when you are talking about punishment. A mild threat or punishment leads to internalization when the child realizes that they weren’t misbehaving not because of a severe threat, but to avoid something minor they will justify their behavior with an internal rationalization.