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How to Reward Your Child’s Behavior the Right Way

As a former child therapist, I have heard a lot of parents express concerns about rewarding their children.  “I don’t think I should have to reward him for things that he should already be doing on his own” is something I have heard countless times before.

Yes… It would be great if our kids (and husbands!) were intrinsically motivated to do what we expect them to do.  However, we know that in reality, this is not always the case.  You often have to use discipline or reward your child’s behavior in order to get him to listen or meet expectations.

But we ourselves are not always intrinsically motivated to do what we need to do either.  Sometimes we need some extrinsic motivation too; that is, we need something outside of ourselves to motivate us.

Take your job (or previous job), for instance.  You most likely would not show up to work or work extra hours unless you were getting paid for it or getting something else out of it.

And remember when you first started working?  Chances are, you often relied on others to praise you or tell you what you were doing correctly so that you could learn the in’s and out’s of the job.  And as you learned and followed through with expectations, you no longer needed that feedback on those tasks.


Why should I reward my child’s behavior?

Just as we need some outside motivation at times, the same goes for your kids.  They need praise and rewards in order to learn what is expected of them at home and in the world.  So although you may be concerned that your child will become dependent on rewards, using them the right way can actually increase independence.  It can also boost their self-esteem!

So although you may be concerned that your child will become dependent on rewards, using them the right way can actually increase independence.  It can also boost their self-esteem!

Furthermore, if you don’t provide your kids with praise and rewards, then that may mean that you are relying too heavily on punishment or taking items/privileges away from them.  Taking away too many things and punishing too much can not only have a negative effect on your relationship with your child, but it can also be ineffective.

Instead, you need a good balance between using discipline and rewards.  You need to know that there are other techniques that can be used to improve your child’s behavior.  And you need to be sure that you are rewarding behavior the right way.

So here are some tips on how to reward your child’s behavior the right way.  First, you need to choose the right rewards for your child…


How Do I Know Which Rewards to Use on My Child?

  • Choose rewards that are rewarding to your child.  Figure out what motivates him.
  • Establish a list of rewards.  The easiest way to do this is to sit down with your child and come up with a list together.  You can grab a FREE list of over 60 reward ideas below.
  • Start with non-monetary rewards, such as social activities (going to the park), special time together (playing a game together), or extra privileges (getting to stay up 15 minutes later).
  • If your child already has unlimited access to something (such as his iPad), then adding extra time to it is not going to be that motivating.  Instead, use items that are less accessible, as these will be more motivating.


How to Reward Your Child’s Behavior the Right Way:

  • Here is the hardest part: consistency.  Be sure to present the reward each time the behavior occurs so that the child can predict that the reward is coming and will be more likely to do the behavior.
  • Present the reward immediately after the behavior so that your child can make the connection between the good behavior and the reward.
  • Sometimes, children need reinforced more frequently instead of just immediately after the reward.  If this is the case, you can present smaller rewards throughout the task in order to keep your child motivated.
    • For example: If you are targeting a behavior like sitting or working quietly, you could praise or present a very small reward every few minutes or so (slightly varying the time intervals without telling the child exactly when you are going to present it).
  • Make sure that the reward fits the behavior and your child’s developmental level.
  • Remember that praise is a reward too.  So remember to praise often.  See my blog post on tips for providing praise.
  • Be sure to label the behavior you are rewarding so that the child can connect the behavior with the reward.  Therefore, instead of just saying “Good job!” say “Nice job picking up your toys the first time I asked!”
  • Keep the system you are using simple and easy for you to manage.  If your reward system is too complicated, you will be less likely to follow through with it, and it will not be predictable enough for your child.
  • You can use reward charts to help motivate your child.  Check out my FREE Reward Chart Bundle here:




What NOT to do…

  • Do NOT take away rewards that your child has already earned in order to punish him.  That will only take away the power of the reward and cause him to be less likely to try to earn it again.  Instead, if your child does something wrong, choose another form of punishment or another item/privilege to take away.
    • For example: Your child cleaned his room and earned extra TV time.  On the way to the TV, he gets into an argument with his sister and kicks her.  You should enforce a consequence for kicking, but he should still get his extra TV time.
    • Note: Delivering rewards immediately after the behavior can often prevent the child from engaging in bad behavior before he gets the reward, though this might not always be the case.
  • Do not give your child mixed messages by withholding the reward.  If your child completes whatever behavior you are targeting, then he should receive the reward, even if he displays other “bad” behaviors while doing so.
    • For example, if your child curses and complains while completing the targeted behavior of picking up his video games, he still gets the reward.
    • As your child gets better with the targeted behavior, you can start shaping up the other behaviors.  For instance, once your child gets better with picking up his video games/toys when you ask, then you can increase the expectations so that he also has to do it without cursing or complaining in order to earn the reward.
  • Do not reward unwanted behavior.  Remember that laughing or giving attention (even negative attention) can unintentionally reward and increase a behavior.
  • Sometimes, children will become demanding or frequently ask about the reward.  Try not to pay too much attention to that behavior; repeat the expectations as needed and continue praising good behavior.

Have you used any other these reward methods to get your child to listen?  What rewards work best with your child?


Although I was a therapist, I am not your therapist or your child’s therapist.  Reading this post does not enter you into a client-therapist relationship with me.  The content in this post is meant to be used as a general guideline and has not been individually tailored to the needs of you and your child.  If you are in need of therapeutic services, please seek the support of a mental health counselor or behavior specialist.

References: My information comes from years of training on Applied Behavior Analysis, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and other evidence-based techniques.  I also like to refer to Russell Barkley (Defiant Children) and Alan Kazdin (Parent Management Training).




2 Comments on How to Reward Your Child’s Behavior the Right Way

  1. The biggest issue with rewards is that children come to expect them and do not have the right motivation. I rewarded my daughter with each good assessment grade for quite a while. When she got to about 16, she would list them all and give me a ‘bill’ saying you owe me five rewards! I think they should not be given as a matter of fact – I am talking here of actual things, not a positive verbal response.

    However, I agree that the positive responses should outweigh the negative. It is important that people learn about cause and effect, sowing and reaping and boundaries.

    • Hi, AJ! Thanks so much for reading my post and sharing your thoughts! I enjoyed hearing the story about your daughter. Yes… If a child can respond to verbal or social forms of reinforcement/rewards, then I strongly suggest using those instead of tangible, monetary rewards. Every child is motivated by different things, so it’s up to us to figure out the least intrusive way to intervene. Of course, we always want to wean our kids off of the rewards and increase our expectations of them once they have mastered the desired skills so that we’re encouraging independence and self-motivation. Thanks again for your comment! 🙂

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