Four Marbles

Four Marbles (Photo credit: Terry Bain)

On a previous post, I talked about using marbles to reward my 3-year-old son for good behaviour. This involves talking to him about what behaviour I want to see from him such as washing his hands after going to the toilet and then offering him a marble every time he carries out that behaviour. I count up his marbles at the end of the day and I put the marbles in a jar. When the marbles reach the top, he is offered a reward. So far the marbles have reached the top of the jar twice and we have taken my son on a steam train and to a theme park as rewards. I do think this system is a good way of rewarding my son at his age as consistency is very important but what about older children? Older children may not respond well to every behaviour being monitored and rewarded. They may also see marbles as childish and want to be rewarded with pocket-money or treats. So how frequently should rewards be given?

Skinner was a famous psychologist who carried out experiments looking at how certain behaviours can be learnt by giving rewards. He found that the most effective way of giving rewards was to give them randomly. This is why many people become addicted to gambling because every now and again they do win money. The variable frequency of the rewards makes gambling more addictive. On the other hand, when rewards are given regularly, for example, every week, good behaviour in the middle may lapse as it is not specifically rewarded. Furthermore, when rewards are given at the end of a time period, for example, rewarding good behaviour at the end of a school term, children may take a break from the desired behaviour immediately after the reward is given. So how can parents use rewards to get the best behaviour from their children? Pocket money probably does need to be given regularly and consistently especially if it is being given for things like unloading the dishwasher every day. However, rewarding children every now and again with a special treat for good behaviour may be particularly effective. For example, you may want to give your child a special treat for a particularly good homework and if you do this on an irregular basis, it will encourage your child to produce more good homeworks in the hope that they will receive another treat at some point.

Some parents may worry they are treating their child like a dog with a carefully worked out system of rewards. They may prefer Alfie Kohn’s point of view that rewards and punishment are just ways of manipulating children’s behaviour. He suggests that when children are rewarded for behaviour they begin to think only about what they can get from a situation. Kohn argues that it is better to ask children to think about what they are doing and explain to them why you want certain behaviours from them. For example, you might talk to them about why it is important for the whole family to eat dinner together. He believes that when children understand the reasons why they should behave a certain way they are more likely to behave well. Internal motivation is more important than external rewards and punishment in changing behaviour.

I have some sympathy with Kohn’s opinion but my practical side argues that internal motivation takes too long and does not give quick results. If I want my son to do something now, I need rewards to incentivize him.  I also know that rewards work better than punishment.  However, I also make sure I explain to my son why I want him to behave in a certain way.

My book  ‘Psychology for Parents: Birth to teens’ is on sale as an e-book on Amazon and