I hosted a webinar this week on how to stop using rewards to gain your child’s compliance, and judging by the number of people who showed up and how many questions they had, this is a hot-button topic. Seems as though a lot of parents really want to find a better way to work with their children, but need help figuring out how to actually do that in real life with their real families. (As a side note, that’s exactly why I created the Finding Your Parenting Mojo membership group – find out more about that by clicking here.)
So I thought it might be helpful to review some of the questions and answers that parents have sent me on this topic over the last few days in case you see these situations in your own family. If you were in the Finding Your Parenting Mojo membership group then we would do this in a live group call so we could actually talk about it, but hopefully this will be a good second-best. If you have questions that aren’t answered here, just drop them in a comment at the end and I’ll get back to you!
Q: I listened to your podcast episode on rewards and it sounds like I need to break the habit of praise. Honestly, that sounds really hard but I’m going to try to do it. Any suggestions as to how to do that? Complements and Praise are the same, right? Personally, I like a complement so is it really never, ever appropriate to complement your child?
A: I looked up “compliment” in the dictionary to be sure I was going to say the right thing and the dictionary defines compliment as “a polite expression of praise or admiration.”
I think the distinction here is in your purpose in offering the praise/compliment and how the child perceives your purpose. If you’re doing it to try to get them to keep doing a certain behavior, then we’re praising to try to manipulate their behavior and we should try to avoid doing that. The best thing to do when you feel like doing this is to just say nothing. But if you want to say something because you genuinely admire something the child did or perhaps you feel grateful that they helped you, or you can see another person feels grateful your child helped them, you can “say what you see”: “Oh, I see you used so much red in this picture! Can you tell me about that?” or “Thanks so much for setting the table; that saved me from having to do it.” Or “Sean looks so happy that you gave him the spade.” If you’re not sure what to say, say nothing. Or at least pause and consider your motivations.
Q: I don’t currently use tangible rewards with my son (almost 3 years), but I know both my spouse and I use a lot of verbal rewards. We tend to praise him for playing nice with his 10 month old sister (because he sometimes does the opposite and is too rough with her). And he seems to really appreciate the praise and enjoy the role of “great big brother.” Plus, we point out how happy sister is, too.
Any tips on how we could help him learn this specific behavior (being gentle, not pushing her, etc.) without verbal rewards? I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around what I could say or do instead. And I’m not entirely sure that what we’re doing is “punishment by rewards.” I could use a little guidance!
“Saying what you see” can be really helpful here too. It sounds like you’re doing this a bit already by pointing out how happy his sister is. I would be more direct in talking with him about your expectations: “Sounds like little sister is awake from her nap! Let’s go and get her. You know how you don’t like to be touched roughly just after you wake up? Let’s make sure to be gentle with her body.”
When he’s interacting with her in a way she’s enjoying, you can point out how he can tell this (her smiles, laughs, looking toward him, etc.), and how he can tell she doesn’t like something (crying, looking away). This will guide him toward being gentle with his sister without you needing to praise him – as well as giving him the space he might need to sometimes not feel like a “great big brother,” and express that to you.
Q: I’m on board with not saying “good job.” But what continues to confuse me after listening to your podcast this week, is why/how SPECIFIC praise is harmful. Why can’t I tell a five year old that just shared with a friend, “that was so kind to share with Lexi.” Or if a child, without any prompts, dashes over to help me pick up a basket of trinkets I just dropped…Why can’t I say, “You are so helpful Josh! Thank you!” I’m confused why using specific language (e.g. helpful, sharing, etc.) harms our children’s intrinsic motivation. I thought it was reinforcing that drive/disposition.
A: This goes back to something we talked about on the webinar regarding your intent on giving the praise. It sounds from what you are saying like you are trying to make sure the five-year-old shares with Lexi and with other friends again, and that Josh comes to help you pick things up the next time you drop them, which means you are essentially trying to manipulate their behavior (even if you’re doing it with the best of intentions), and the research we’ve reviewed also shows that children are less likely to do these things again if we praise them.
Instead of praising them, you could say “Lexi looked so happy when you gave her the toy” or “thanks so much for helping me to pick these up, Josh – that made it so much easier for me.” We’re not trying to say that you should never express appreciation to your child, but that focusing on how the other person feels about the interaction helps your child to learn about the impact of their actions without praising them for what they did.
Q: I’d like to learn more about how you reached the understanding with your daughter that if she wants you to make up songs, then she needs to go to bed by 9 pm [note: this scenario was described in the free guide “How to stop using rewards to gain your child’s compliance” that you can download here.] I have tried to avoid this kind of scenario because the only way I know how to do it seems like a threat or a punishment (if you don’t do x, I’m taking away y) but in the example you provided, you don’t seem threatening. You offer her a choice, but by choosing to stay up later drawing, she does end up losing something: the made up songs. How do I communicate I need to take away something without threatening the loss of the privilege?
It’s absolutely the negotiation beforehand that makes this work. One thing I learned from respectful parenting is that parenting isn’t a one-way street; it’s a two-way street and I have rights in this relationship too. So the things we do in the relationship need to work for both of us, and it wasn’t working for me to be summoned to her room at 10pm to make up songs off the top of my head. So ideally I should have sung her songs that night and then the next day talked with her about it but we’ve been doing this a while now so sometimes we’re able to short-circuit the process a bit and I can say to her “this isn’t working for me,” and she will start looking for solutions that will work for both of us. So yes, she does lose something if she stays up late but that is her choice which I think makes it easier. We do all have to make choices in life; we can’t have everything we want. If it wasn’t difficult for me to make up songs late at night then I would keep doing it but it is, and I just don’t want to do it when I’m tired. The side-effect of having songs at 9pm is that now she WANTS to go to bed at 9pm most nights.
Q: I remember reading somewhere that you should avoid statements like “if you don’t brush your teeth, we can’t read books” but it’s ok to say “as soon as we brush, we can read books”. What are your thoughts on differences in phrasing like that which essentially communicate the same things?
A: I do think that there’s a difference between those statements – I agree that they are essentially saying the same thing, but they set a very different tone for the interaction. The first one has that “if you” statement [which we discussed in the recent webinar as being an indication that we want to manipulate our child’s behavior] and sets up the books as a reward for brushing, which is probably going to make the child like tooth brushing even less. I might adjust the second statement to say “let’s brush teeth, because it’s important to keep them clean and healthy, and then we can read books.” Yes, this is a minor distinction but so is the difference between “take the trash out” and “would you please take out the trash?” and I know which one of those two I’d prefer to hear…
I would say that if your bedtime routine isn’t working for you and your child is protesting, then you should ask for your child’s ideas on what to do about it, and then you would say “let’s brush your teeth, because it’s important to keep your teeth clean and healthy, and then we can…[do whatever they decided to do]. It’s about giving the child as much autonomy in the operation as is reasonably possible.
And this is not to say that we are trying to turn every aspect of your life into a negotiation with your child, but if you work with your child to develop a plan for things that have been causing you trouble and if they actually have real substantive input into that plan then they are going to feel invested in it and they are probably going to cooperate with you. So it does take some time in the beginning, but you reap the rewards in that your daily life begins to get so much easier.
We answered even more questions on the webinar, if you’d like to tune in: you can watch the replay in Step 2 on this page.
Have more questions about how to stop using rewards to gain your child’s compliance? Leave a comment below, and I’ll get back to you…
Also published on Medium.