A few months ago, my husband and I met a psychologist who advised us to start using rewards with our 6-year-old. Our son is happy, but he struggles at times with his behavior and emotions. (What kid doesn’t?) We wanted to help him become more self-sufficient, more proactive—to get dressed in the morning without prompting, to clear his plate after breakfast, to say please and thank you, to put his dirty clothes in the hamper. We also hoped to curb his frequent meltdowns. A positive parenting approach that reinforces good behavior could make this happen, the psychologist told us.
The internet, which of course I consulted immediately, staunchly disagreed. In parents’ exhausting journey to raise good kids, I learned, they should never, ever use rewards. A 2016 article in the Atlantic, “Against the Sticker Chart,” warned me that rewarding kids for good behavior “can erode children’s innate tendency to help others.” Money ran a story in 2015 titled “The Hidden Downside to Rewarding Your Kids for Good Behavior.” Education guru Alfie Kohn has written an entire book on the subject, Punished by Rewards. The concern, which can be traced back to research from the 1970s, is that rewarding kids for being polite, doing chores, or finishing their homework extinguishes their innate desire to do those things down the line. Worse, I was told, rewards could make kids callous and manipulative. I imagined my son leering at me: “How much will you pay me not to whack my sister with this flip-flop?”