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When to Reward Good Behavior

Q. I gave my 3-year-old a cookie the first time he helped me put away his toys. Now he expects one every time. Should I always give him a reward for good behavior?

A. Most of us have grappled with the issue of rewards when struggling to get our children to cooperate and be well behaved. The concern about material incentives, however, is that they motivate kids to make good choices in order to receive prizes. Another downside: Children begin to expect rewards for even the smallest tasks; when they don't receive these gifts, they think they've done something wrong. Instead, you want your child to do the right thing because it makes him feel good, whether he's pouring his own milk or helping to clean the yard.

You can nurture your child's sense of internal satisfaction with rewards, but they should be logically connected to the behavior. Giving a child a cookie for helping to clean up his toys is not very useful. However, reading him another book because he didn't try to stall at bedtime shows him that favorable things happen when you cooperate, take on responsibility, and exercise sound judgment. Of course, the best reward is to bolster your son's self-esteem by telling him how proud you are when he has made a good choice and pointing out how his actions were helpful and important. For example, "You put all the clothes back in your drawer. You are doing such a wonderful job keeping your room clean, and helping Mommy, too! Thanks."

Claire Lerner, LCSW, is a child development specialist at Zero to Three, a national nonprofit promoting the healthy development of babies and toddlers (zerotothree.org).

Originally published in American Baby magazine, November 2005.

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.