Rewarding Positive Behavior May Give You Negative Results

So the world has evolved to one of golden stars and treasure chests. The idea is pretty simple… The child does well and performs the tasks that they are asked to perform, and they are then rewarded. The sad truth is, life isn’t like that! No one gives us prizes or gold stars for paying our rent or making sure our children are fed. The fact is, there are some basic things that are expected of us as a baseline for what is acceptable, and the same is true for children.

I have never believed in the theory of constantly rewarding positive behavior for my own kids, but I really felt this concept was terribly flawed when I picked up my nephew at school one day. He told me with a scowl how he got a “green” at school that day, which is the best behavior code he can get. I asked why he wasn’t happy about it, and he replied that it was because he behaved well and no one had given him a reward. I should mention he struggles to consistently get “greens” so for us it is a big deal and we cheer him on. He went on to explain to me that he doesn’t want to get greens unless he gets a prize or a reward. And that is where I began to understand that as the adults in his life we had failed him.

I explained to my girls at an early age that my job as a mom was to make sure that they were loved, clothed, fed and taken care off. I showed them how the lights and the water turned on and explained that was paid for, it wasn’t free.  I actually showed them the paper bills for the utilities. I point out the sacrifices we make to go out to dinner, on vacation, or throw a birthday party. I tell them those sacrifices are my job as a parent. Their job is to go to school, be responsible for their schoolwork, be respectful of authority figures and peers and try their hardest to get good grades. None of that is my job, it is what is expected of THEM. They have never been rewarded directly for that behavior. They have been rewarded by receiving multiple awards and accolades; by streams of complements from teachers, family and other parents; and by beautiful letters and notes from their friends.

I have never had to remind my children to do a project, or study for a test, or turn in an assignment. I don’t even open their notebooks. They check their grades throughout the year to see how they are performing and where they should put forth more effort. This has been going on their entire academic career. And it isn’t just one of my kids, it is ALL THREE that do this. That is why when people complement me for their work; I say and I mean that it is all them! I don’t do their projects either. They have learned to take responsibility and be proud of THEIR work.  They know if they don’t do it, it won’t get done and no one will force them to, but they want to succeed.  They enjoy doing well.


This week my oldest Elise graduated 8th grade.  She has always achieved good grades but she had her mind set on graduating with straight A’s.  She made it clear that that was her her goal.  She had managed to get straight A’s all year before but she admitted that she hadn’t been trying as hard and had a B or two scattered throughout her report card in the last couple of years.  She managed to not only do it but also graduate as a member of the National Jr. Honor Society and achieving consecutive 5s on her state standardized testing.

Elise also decided she wanted to be in the top 10 percent of her incoming class for high school and achieved it.  Many kids took classes for the schools entrance exam but I told her if she was to be in the top 10 percent she would have to work for it and she would have to genuinely deserve it.  Not have it be as a result of a tutor who gave her ways to beat the test.  If she could do it, she could do it on her merit so I bought her a book at Barnes and Nobel and she did.  She was over the moon that she is in the top of her class but she repeated to me that it meant even more to her because she did not get tutored like most of the others in her class.  (I would like to mention that I am not against tutoring, I just felt she could get into the school without it and I did not want to tutor her and  force her into a program for the top of her class.  The program requires a cirriculium that I worried she could not keep up if she had been tutored.)  Her reward was her achievement.  I can’t explain how happy she was to set her goal and to reach it.  She, and her sisters, have never once asked me for anything as a result of good grades or an achievement.   They are motivated to excel.

I do let them for example pick where we will eat dinner one night for getting straight A’s but they don’t receive money or gifts. And yes, I punish negative behavior, as does the world. You steal and you go to jail. You lie and eventually you will get caught and lose friends. That is life. And life is what I am preparing my children for. The grades are not as important as teaching my children how to succeed at life.  I see some children today learning to determine when it is “worth it” to be “bad” or to be “good”. If the prize or the bribe is good enough they will decide if it merits the requested behavior but if not, they choose to act on impulse and do what pleases them.  They have learned what the negative consequences may be and they have learned to negotiate and navigate those consequences. What is going to happen when the consequences become more serious? When the parents can’t control the negative consequences of life? Believe that your kids are good enough and smart enough to understand what is expected of them and be brave enough to expect more of your children. They will live up to the standards and expectations you set for them.

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