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Reward or Punish?

September 25, 2009
Janet Brown ISU Extension Family Life Program Specialist

I was in the grocery store the other day and overheard a mom say to her young screaming child, "If you stop crying, I'll buy you a candy bar." Immediately the young child stopped crying. At least he stopped crying for the moment. What mom just taught the child was: scream in the store and I'll give you candy, or almost anything else you want at the moment.

We often hear of using rewards to get kids to stop doing something. In fact, rewards is a very desirable consequence - but for GOOD behavior - Not to stop bad behavior. Some parents are initially skeptical, viewing rewards as bribing their children to behave. Rewards, used correctly, are not bribes. Parents bribe their children when they dangle something in front of them to stop or prevent behavior, as in the previous example.

A reward is a motivator for good behavior. What mom could/should have said even before entering the store, was, "I expect pleasant voices in the store and for everyone to stay next to the cart. Each child who does this may choose a pack of gum at the checkout." The reward is properly given AFTER the good behavior was earned. If the parent stays calm and follows through with his/her plan, rewarding those who behave well and matter-of-factly withholding gum from those who don't, then he has successfully used the simple reward system.

This example used candy/gum as the reward. But kids will often work for rewards that don't cost anything. Examples of this might be: to choose a video to rent, to stay up 15 minutes longer on a school night, to have someone else do one of their chores, and (most sought after) extra time with Mom and/or Dad. The key is making the reward something your child likes to do that they aren't already getting. Getting to play their favorite board game, playing outside together, having a pillow fight, or even helping cook something with Mom/Dad are times for which they will change a behavior. Just getting to watch an extra half hour of TV by themselves may not be a big enough incentive for them to change their behavior. Children love focused time with their parents more than a toy or a piece of candy as a reward.

The use of rewards works for almost any age. Some parents, who want a more long term change, attach points to the positive desired behavior. Everyday right after school, you hang your coat in the closet without being reminded, you'll get one point. At the end of the week, if you have 5 points, you will get ??? (insert reward here). This is called a point chart. This system is used very successfully in schools from grades K-12.

For more practical tips in using the reward system or point charts - contact your local county extension office or email me directly at



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