The reward systems for kids are based on principles from behaviorism. John B. Watson (1878-1958) advocated the use of principles of conditioning in parenting (Psychological care of infant and child, 1913). Burrhus F. Skinner (1904-1990) described the ‘operant conditioning theory’: in experiments with animals he discovered that behavior could be encouraged by linking positive reinforces with the behavior, such as a compliment or a gift. The desired behavior will be shown more frequently, when animals as well as humans notice that certain behavior consistently leads to pleasant consequences. These principles of learning are valid for everyone, adults as well as children. Think, for example, about how a compliment from your boss can make you become more motivated for your work. This theory together with Pavlov’s (1849-1936) theory on classic conditioning, formed the basis for behaviorism/behavioral psychology, which can be found in many psychology books and is practiced by psychologists. A behavior system for kids can be part of the behavioral therapy and is often called a ‘token economy system’.

The operant conditioning theory also describes that undesired behavior can be discouraged with punishment, this, however, is not part of this reward program. Among other things, because it is assumed that for learning new behaviors a positive environment is needed and rewarding is a more powerful means than punishment. Negative attention by punishment may work adversely and may even give power to children.

Moreover, by punishment you learn what you may not do, but not what you should do. In a positive environment, children gain more confidence by taking the next step. After having experiences of success, the self-esteem grows and the child finds pleasure in learning. If the child shows a lot of negative behavior, the reward can be given at a moment when the negative behavior is absent, for instance when there has not been any argument for an hour.

Of course, children also need boundaries and rules. If your child shows the undesired behavior (contrary to the behavior which is being practiced) during the reward program, we recommend a time out (ignoring undesired behavior). If you do want to comment, react neutrally. For example, if your child has wet its trousers, name it with a neutral tone, ‘you just wet your trousers, go and put on clean underpants’.

Behavioral therapists also talk about the principle of ‘shaping and chaining’, whereby behavior is divided in little in-between steps and slowly is polished, until it is mastered. Moreover, children learn best in a social environment, by imitating others. That is also why setting a good example (modelling) is very important.

Arguments against a point reward system: aspects to consider

In the dutch book ‘Liefdevol opvoeden, een kunst’ (Parenting with love, an art) it is recommended to only (materially) reward in exceptional situations. If you reward (materially) for too long, the child will possibly experience this as a means of coercion, which is destructive for the intrinsic motivation (the will from inside). Besides, after an act there are automatically rewarding and punishing elements, from which the child can learn. If, for instance, a child is dawdling in the morning and comes late for school, it will be remarked by the teacher. If you do not throw your clothes in the laundry basket, they will still be dirty the next day. The experience of these natural consequences is very important for the learning process. Cladder, Nijhof-Huysse and Mulder (2009) also give preference to letting the natural consequences teach: a reward system for kids is meant to be a temporary aid. Moreover, Eva Kessler (2008) calls punishing and rewarding ‘a condescending signal’: she gives preference to standing next to the child instead of above it.

Some parents believe that children should obey without receiving extra’s. A critical observation with this is, that it is not meant to be a ‘bribe system’, but a temporary encouragement to learn. Experience learns, that children show the learned behavior after the program with pleasure. This is, however, one of the reasons why it is important to give mostly social rewards (for example: cycling together/crafting) and few material rewards.

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