If your child is hooked on rewards, beware. Rewards can reduce kids’ potential to thrive. 

“What do I get if I do it?”

“How much will you give me?”

“Why should I do it if you don’t pay me?”

Heard any of these words lately from your darling offspring?

If so, chances are your kid is suffering from a widespread kid epidemic called: “Hooked on Rewards.

Translation: the kid expects the gold stars, stickers, or monetary prizes for a job well done.

Of course we want our kids to succeed: we’re tickled pink when they do. So we award that perfect spelling test, winning soccer goal or tantrum-free play date with a few dollars or special treat.

But beware: all those rewards and incentives can backfire.

The more kids receive the more they seem to expect. And the more they expect, the more we rob them of developing the ability to motivate themselves.

In the end our kids have to be their own cheerleaders and learn to count on themselves, not us. After all, one of our most important parenting goals is for our kids to learn to act right without us.

6 Cures for the “Hooked on Rewards” Epidemic

If your child is suffering from the “What do I get?” syndrome, the following strategies  just might be the cure.

Using these parenting secrets will help you wean your child from expecting rewards and realize they should do a job well done because it’s just the right thing to do. Period.

Take a stand and stay committed

The first step is simple: Stop giving material rewards, trophies, or money  for every little thing. Take a firm stand against unnecessary incentives.

Just expect your kid to help out at home and do the best she can in school and other activities. This is the only way your child will learn to be self-reliant, independent, and self-motivated.

State what you see

The very next time your kid does something noteworthy, keep your wallet closed. Instead, state a simple judgment-free comment:

“You rode your bike all by yourself!” or

“Wow, you really put a lot of work into this report. Good for you!

Or simply, “You did it.”

Ask questions to boost internal pride

Instead of being so quick to reinforce your kid, find out what pleased her about the job she did. The trick is to nurture your kid’s internal motivation by putting the success back inside her corner.

Switch your pronouns from “I” to “you”

One of the easiest ways to wean kids away from external control is simply to change the pronouns in your praise and switch your “I” to “you.”

This simple switch takes the emphasis off your approval and puts more on the child’s acknowledging her appropriate actions.Here is an example of how you might use the pronoun switch:

I statement: “I’m really proud of how hard you worked today.”

You statement: “You must be really proud of how hard you worked today.”

Encourage internal praise

Point out what your child did that deserved merit and then remind him to acknowledge himself internally (to use “self-talk”).

Suppose your son has difficulty being a good sport whenever he loses at his soccer games. This time he really made an effort to not blame everyone for the loss. At a private moment, encourage him to acknowledge his success: “John, you really made an effort not to say anything negative about the other team today. Did you remember to tell yourself that you did a great job?”

Have your kid keep an accomplishment journal

Stacey Owens, a mom of four from Kansas City, shared with me another way to help kids learn to reinforce their own behavior.

She gives each of her children a small journal. At least once a week she asks each child to spend a few minutes writing (or drawing) his or her successes.

The mom also explained that she tells her kids that the true definition of success is a four-letter word spelled “g-a-i-n.” It is any improvement–big or small–that the child thinks he has made. Love it!

This routine has helped her children slowly recognize that they do have control over their own lives and builds their inner motivation muscle.

Self-motivation develops slowly, but we can help our kids develop that inner muscle by how we respond to their behavior.

So the very next time your kid deserves recognition, do acknowledge her effort: “Nice job, Sally. You must be really proud of how hard you worked!” (And do emphasize the child’s effort — not the end product, score, or grade… doing so is a proven parenting practice that nurtures not only inner motivation but also good old GRIT!) 

Then smile broadly, pat her lovingly on the back, and keep your wallet closed.


Dr. Michele Borba

My new book, Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine is in print March 2, 2021! I’ve spent the last five years researching and writing this book as well as literally flying around the world to find the best ways we can raise resilient children. My goal is to create a conversation that makes us rethink or view of success as exclusively grades, rank and score and includes character strengths that can-and must-be taught.! It’s filled with common-sense solutions based on the latest science to help us raise kids with strong hearts, minds and will. It’s time to include “resilience” in our parenting and teaching!

You can also follow me on twitter @MicheleBorba.