You may have read that rewarding children for “good” behaviors that they “should” be doing is not the right thing to do. And that it can even lead to children losing interest in an activity. While there is some truth to that, it is not entirely accurate.

How many of you reading this article work for free? What I am asking is – how many of you go to work, either for yourself or for someone else, and receive zero dollars or perks as a result of doing your job week after week, year after year? This includes stay-at home-parents and those who volunteer. Your rewards may not be monetary, but there is some “reward” for your work, such as a sense of pride.

From here on I will replace the word reward with REINFORCEMENT. Decades of research show that reinforcement establishes and maintains behavior, and not just the “good” ones (I will be glad to write about this topic in another blog post).

We all get reinforced for our behavior, it is the way behavior sticks around. When reinforcing our children for behaviors that we are trying to establish as routines, the key to reinforcement is FADING – gradually extending the requirements to earn the reinforcement. If we give our children a lollipop, or toy or even money for every individual behavior they accomplish, then they come to expect it that way. And the truth is – that’s not how real life works. Most work does not come with daily payment. Paychecks may come weekly, bi-weekly monthly, on a contract basis, etc. If we are simulating real life in our parenting, in order to best prepare our children for real life, we must be planning our reinforcement fading from the beginning.

Sticker charts are a good way to establish fading of reinforcement. When your children are younger, you can start with a 1:1 system (1 behavior / 1 sticker = 1 reinforcing item). This associates the behavior with the sticker and the sticker with reinforcement. A major key to this system is to provide praise and social reinforcement (e.g. hugs, bragging about your child in front of them, high fives) with each delivery of the reinforcer. It transfers the reinforcing property to the praise, which becomes social reinforcement (this is another great blog topic for another day). The next step is to fade, once the 1:1 is going well. You can try a 2:1 system (1 behavior/ 1 sticker + 1 behavior/ 1 sticker = 1 reinforcing item), and so on. You can adjust your fading as quickly, or as slowly as needed, for your child to latch on to it. This system can even turn into a bi-weekly allowance for household chores, or you can establish a list of unique jobs that lead to separate payments (for example – raking the leaves = $5).

Another way to reinforce a child is to be spontaneous about it. Reinforcing a child when they don’t know it’s coming will motivate them to always be on their toes. Try throwing in a “yes” where you would usually say, “no”!

Don’t get me wrong, this takes time and effort! But, aren’t our children worth the time and effort that it takes to get them adjusted to real life? Can I get a, “YES”! The goal is not to sticker chart every behavior in our children’s repertoire. Nor is it to send our children to college on a sticker chart system. The goal is to establish a way to teach our children that “good/desired/appropriate” behaviors get rewarded.  And the key is fading.

Reinforcement comes in many forms, such as: monetary (e.g. cash, deposits to bank accounts, savings bonds); activity-based (e.g. travel, movies, trampoline park); tangible (e.g. stuff, toys, food); social (e.g. praise, alone time with mom, date night with dad). The key is to focus on the behaviors you want to encourage and establish in your children’s lives. Teach them how to behave by reinforcing the behaviors you feel are a necessary part of the ultimate goal: an independent, well-rounded adult.

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