During the pandemic, I hear families struggling with how to motivate their kids to focus on their schoolwork or other home responsibilities all the time. Many parents fall back to trading (1 hour of iPad for 1 hour of math) or offering rewards (if you finish your HW you can have…) – but they also worry it can be negative to the healthy development of our kids.It turns out there is a good deal of science behind the question, “is bribing my kids OK?” In fact, rewards are an important tool to help people build new habits – when done along the right rules. Rewards don’t have to equate to bribing – the difference in is how the reward is administered – if done incorrectly, it can indeed create dependency. Based on the research, here are the rules to do external rewards right to effectively motivate kids (and adults!).

Photo by Kelly Sikkema 

Photo by Kelly Sikkema

Rule #1 is that you reward people for doing things they don’t like – like breaking habits or building new ones. There have been many studies on the use of rewards in breaking bad habits – like smoking in pregnant women and in creating new habits like exercising. It is important because rewards help you do something you are not already intrinsically motivated to do. 

Rule #2 is the reward should be based on effort, not the outcome. For example, a student who regularly gets Fs may not be motivated if the reward is based on getting an A. They may not be able to achieve that in realistic time-frame.  Tie the reward to time spent on schoolwork everyday then that student has the motivation to build study skills which will eventually improve their grades. Positive reinforcement – especially in a 5:1 ratio (5 positives to 1 negative) is critical in this rule.

Rule #3 Once a habit is formed, the reward should be moved to another habit or skill. You can’t reward making the bed everyday for all time. You want your child to build the habit, enjoy the outcome (clean room where I can find things!) and then be intrinsically motivated to continue the work. 

Rule #4 is that the reward matters. If you gave yourself a carrot everytime you worked out, would that be rewarding enough for you to drag yourself out of bed at 6am everyday? Rewards have to hold value to the person in order to drive value. 

Finally, rule #5 – and probably the most important rule. There has to be autonomy built into the process. The child must have choice. They must get choice on what they work on or even what their reward might be. If your child is getting low grades and you want to motivate them to want to change that trajectory, let him decide how long and how many days he will apply himself and what he gets if he meets his goals with fidelity. Without giving agency to our children, we risk making rewards a transactional exercise – more like bribes – and that will not serve our kids well.

Photo by Annie Spratt 

Photo by Annie Spratt

Let’s also be real. Rewards – or getting value from effort – are everywhere. We treat ourselves to evenings off or gifts for putting forth effort into things we’d rather not do. We use external motivation to develop a skill. As we build habits around that skill, we hopefully form intrinsic motivation. 

To help parents – as a parent and teacher myself – I developed a free tool called Kred Rewards. The app is used by both the child and the parent to use external rewards effectively to help children develop new skills – skills they otherwise may not be motivated to do to. It’s simple to use – both the parent and child download the app and register. They link to each other with a code. The child picks skills or habits they want to work on and will track them every day. As they meet their goals, parents can set a weekly allowance-based reward that the child gets based on their goals. That allowance can then be used in a safe, age-appropriate rewards store in your child’s app – the store is curated by age-level and has unique and educational items to excite and expand continuous motivation and learning. Go to kredapp.com to learn more!

Parents are often conflicted about offering rewards to their kids in fear that they are bribes and send the wrong message. Rewards can be negative but, if done correctly following the rules of research, can be a powerful motivator for kids to try and build new skills.

This Guest Post was by Nidhi Patel (Founder and CEO of Red Rewards)

Cover Photo by Josh Appel 

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