To Reward or Not To Reward – That is the Question

Parents often fear bribing their children to do things and ending up with a child who expects to be paid every time they are told to clean up their bedroom.  The fear of their child always saying "What do I get when I clean my room?" leads parents to avoid offering an incentive for things they are "supposed to just do" (like homework).   However, most parents never fear the question of "What will you do to me if I don't clean my room?"

Should parents reward their child for things that are somewhat aversive/painful or punish them for not doing those things (like homework)?   It may be helpful to first ask, "Is there a difference between rewards and punishments?"  The long answer is yes, but the more practical answer is not really.

If I say to my child, “Billy, if you do not do your homework by 7:00, there is no TV tonight.”  That sounds like a punishment or threat. 

However, if I say, “Billy, if you finish your homework by 7:00, you can watch TV.”  This sounds like a reward, an incentive earned. 

So, is there really a difference between the two? In both statements, it is true that if Billy doesn't do his homework, he loses TV and if he does do his homework he gets TV.  One sounds like a punishment and one may sound like a bribe, but they are both technically stating the same thing.  However, how Billy perceives what he is told is vastly different.   

When a parent says he will lose TV for not doing his homework, Billy perceives that as a threat (and Billy does not respond well to threats!). Instead of realizing that if he gets his homework done he will still get TV, Billy immediately yells back stating how unfair his parents are and how his brother never loses TV!  This causes his parents to threaten more consequences and no one is focused on getting homework started!

When threatened, humans (including children) typically follow two paths “Fight or Flight.” Put another way, "yell and argue or run away". Children’s brains are particularly bad at recognizing a real threat vs. a perceived threat.  Technically their life will not end because they may lose TV, but they feel as if their life is over in that moment!  So, they argue back, throw a tantrum, or simply run to a different room and neither choice leads to completing homework.  In fact, instead of starting homework, a parent is now faced with an upset Billy who feels he is being attacked and whose brain is charged for a fight (heart is racing, breathing fast, talking loud).  

However, if his parent had said he would earn TV as soon as his homework was completed, the reward center of Billy’s brain would activate (the part that reminds him that he likes TV and motivates him to try to get earn more TV).  In fact, instead of adrenaline flooding his system (“stress hormones”), rewards trigger the chemical dopamine (“feel good hormones”).  

As a parent, you have two options: 

Option 1: Threaten to take away TV which activates the “Fight or Flight” response (yell or run away) and cases homework avoidance and therefore no TV.

Option 2: Offer earning TV time for doing homework which reminds your child how much they like TV and gets them motivated to earn the reward.

Offering incentives for summer reading or problem solving can motivate students to engage with academics throughout the summer.  This thinking and type of communication is not a cure for getting homework completed or tasks accomplished, but it might change how you interact with your child.  If you would like ideas on how to implement this with summer work or as we move into a new school year, please contact us for ideas.  We offer consultation appointments to help structure academic incentives within your home.