Your Reward System

Now it's time to choose some appropriate rewards and put them into play. When you choose rewards, make sure that, like bonding activities, they cater to your child's tastes and are not thinly disguised rewards for yourself.

Choosing Rewards Ahead of Time

Choose rewards now, before you need them. Rewards should be attractive to the child, specific, tangible, and measurable, and they should be small and inexpensive enough that you can hand them out every time a desired behavior occurs. Think of rewards as analogous to peanuts for an elephant: you give one small peanut at a time, leading the elephant through the zoo step by step. You don't give the elephant a whole bag of peanuts at once — he'd stop dead in his tracks. A peanut for every step keeps him going.

For rewards, you need some “peanuts” of your own: stickers; small, inexpensive toys that complement a larger set and that you can hand out individually (like Legos); “bucks” that your child can use to “buy” extra screen time, time alone with Mom or Dad, or lights-on minutes; or even small pieces of candy, which can be effective but have obvious drawbacks.

Whatever the reward, your child should like it and be able to understand what it is, and count it as it accumulates. What won't work: a new bike (too much) or some stocks (not tangible, not fun).

Setting Up the Reward System

It's all about visuals here. You need an at-a-glance reward system. For small children, use a chart or calendar for stickers, and keep it on the fridge or in another conspicuous place. Your child can feel proud to see his stickers every time he walks by. Or, if you're using Legos, keep the bin of Legos out of reach, and keep your child's earned Legos in a bucket that reveals instantly how many it contains. If you decide to go with candy, show the bag to your child once when you announce your rewards system, and then keep it out of reach, taking the bag down only to remove one piece of candy at a time when it's earned.

Essential

Don't take rewards back. Once your child has earned them, they're his. Unless you're using some kind of a point system where your child “cashes in” his points to get a bigger prize, what he earns is for keeps, no matter how terrible his subsequent behavior. Remember that the rewards are peanuts and your goals for better behavior are long-term, not short-term.

For older children, you can use points, “bucks,” tickets, or tokens that accumulate and are cashed in for something your older child will probably value more than stickers, Legos, or candy. The older a child, the more you can use this goal-oriented approach.

For example, you can put a chart on the fridge that lists some desired behaviors (like complying with a request the first time it's made, or going to bed on time) in columns, and the days of the week in rows. Every time the behavior occurs, the parent makes a checkmark in the appropriate square. Ten checkmarks equal a half-hour extra for staying out on a weekend, or a half-hour more screen time. You can also use a jar of tokens, paper money, or a roll of tickets, as long as the accumulated items are kept in a conspicuous place, like a shelf above the sink.

Once you have decided on the best reward system, explain it to your child. Don't mention bad or undesirable behaviors, or what will happen if the child doesn't comply, just say, “Look, here are some Legos. Every time you use the bathroom on your own, you get one Lego,” or “This is a reward chart. For every day you complete your homework and turn it in at school, you'll get a point. Ten points equals a half-hour of extended curfew on a weekend.” Focus on one or two desired behaviors — whatever's most pressing — and leave the rest alone for now.

Tapering Off

At first, you'll need to be extremely diligent about giving rewards every time the desired behavior occurs. For one thing, your child may be skeptical about your sincerity, and may be watching to see if you'll give up on this and let him continue to act out. For another thing, the best way to form the habits you want is to reinforce them regularly and, if not immediately, then as soon as you find out about them.

After the desired behavior becomes automatic, and you have celebrated it extensively and regularly by rewarding it every time, you can ease off. Gradually give the reward less frequently, and taper down to praise, finally reducing it to just a smile. If your child has accumulated a large amount of stickers or Legos, admire the accumulation and all the hard work it represents. Tell your child how proud you are of his hard work. You can even take a picture of him standing next to a full sticker chart or bucket of Legos, and tape the picture to the fridge or other conspicuous place.

Once you feel your child is ready, you can move on to the next positive behavior. Kids like star charts once they get used to them, so you can sub out the old behaviors for new ones that need improvement when it's time.

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