Rewards are all around our children. Stars. Sticker charts. Prizes. Many of us automatically reward good behavior or new accomplishments with food. Even if you don’t dole out frequent rewards in your family, chances are your child is being loaded with rewards like pencils, toys, candy, school bucks, ice cream parties or other prizes at school, music lessons or other places.
Where does all this rewarding lead us?
Rewards do two things. They put the spotlight on outside approval, so the child’s inner glow of satisfaction can get lost in the fuss and reward focus. They also elevate the value and importance of possessions/ eating. Rewards like this can be habit-forming in unhealthy ways. Even as adults, children rewarded by food may say “I did great! Now I’ll eat.” Food rewards can become a lifelong habit.
I’ve never been a sticker-chart person. Life and relationships seem to complicated for that. Still, for certain big changes, some kids appreciate seeing something tangible so they can touch and see and feel to mark their progress. The goal is to help a child develop and recognize the inner glow of accomplishment and self-worth. That comes most easily when things are child-directed. Go ahead and put something on the wall, but make it personal – something of the child’s own devising. We’ve had a picture of a dancer moving on to a stage and a soldier finding things a soldier would need, such as food and gunpowder. Progress itself is the reward, not a prize handed out.
There’s also a difference between giving out rewards and simply celebrating. Regular, daily celebrations go on all the time – these are times when you’re simply there to smile, listen and share the joy of your child’s new independence. Then there are times when you want to reach into a reward bag to mark a special milestone. Instead of food, toy or sticker rewards, our family uses experiences.
When it’s time to celebrate a child, we often camp out in the backyard or sleep in the barn. My youngest calls it a Wongo. It’s fun. It’s free. It’s the child’s idea. It reinforces family relationships. The reward has already come within the child’s own spirit, now we’re just celebrating.
Simple celebrations bind people together and they focus on doing not spending money or getting an object. It might be eating breakfast for supper. It might be having a silly hour. It might be sleeping under a tent fort in the living room.
When you’re ready to help a child change a behavior or gain new independence, be careful before you set up a reward structure. Think how you can foster internal rewards. Share her joy. And if you want to, go ahead and celebrate.
Were you rewarded with food or other things as a kid? What actually makes you feel good inside? What types of rewards or celebrations do you like best?