The Reality of Rewards
As wonderful as rewards sound as the miracle ingredient in potty training, they are not without their risks. Just as you expect a paycheck for every day you work because that is the compromise you agreed upon and the reward you have come to expect, toddlers also begin to associate behaviors with rewards on a continual pattern until they “expect” a reward. This often leads to a sense of entitlement for current and future behaviors. Some possible complications from rewards include:
Attachment to unhealthy rewards
The problem: As your child grows accustomed to receiving rewards, he may also grow bored with one reward, which will prompt you to seek an alternative reward. You may start with a sticker, for example, but then find yourself moving on to a small toy or a trip to the playground. Soon your child grows tired of these rewards, so you turn to food, larger toys, or longer trips to the playground. Before you know it, your child's rewards have become beyond reasonable expectation or ability. You may find yourself unable to keep him pleased with the rewards you do have available, and you may find yourself unable to acquire a better reward.
The solution: Variety is the spice of life. Before the rewards become a problem, start pursuing a solution. Consider having a variety of rewards available, and make it a game to determine which reward he gets at any given bathroom time. You might keep small snacks, toys, and stickers in a bag that he gets to draw from after using the bathroom. You might also create a spinning wheel that he can spin to determine which reward he gets. Another possibility is to have him close his eyes and hold out his hands while you choose the treat for him. Whichever method you choose, a reward can often maintain its value as a reward if it is also a surprise. He knows the act he must perform in order to receive his reward, but the reward he gets is anybody's guess!
Problem: Many parents choose to use something sweet like chocolate, cookies, or other types of candy in order to motivate their children. While it is a good idea to use a reward that your children genuinely want, it is also important to consider the long-term effects. Childhood obesity is on the rise and can lead to early onset diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and more. Childhood is also a time when children learn behaviors they will carry with them into adulthood, so now is an important time to refrain from teaching your children to associate basic responsibilities with sugary rewards. This does not mean that chocolate can never be used as a reward or that your children should never be allowed to eat sugar. Moderation is key, whether it be in your own diet or your child's. As you are preparing a variety of treats to be available for rewards, make sure that sugar is only one of many options. You should also make sure your sugary treats are only available at appropriate times. For example, if your three year-old shows a partiality for pixie sticks, you probably do not want them to get candy as a reward right before bedtime.
Solution: The decision regarding when and how much sugar your child receives as a reward is ultimately up to you, but remember that children are often equally pleased with a sweet apple, naturally sugary juice, or even just a small part of a larger piece of candy as a reward. You may also decide that food is simply not the best means to reward your child. There are many other rewards—including special activities, a trip to the store, time at the playground, and stickers—that can take the place of sugary treats.
Problem: Because parenting is a full-time job, potty training is also a full-time job. As you find yourself closer to a diaper-free life, your child will begin communicating with you more often about when he needs to go to the bathroom, regardless of where you are. You have to help your child understand that bathrooms are everywhere. You will find yourself using more public restrooms even as you help your child learn how to “hold it.” However, your child may not always understand that rewards are not always available, or he may decide that it is not worth his time, attention, and effort to use a toilet in a place where there is no reward.
Solutions: The first solution is to include extra rewards in the bag of supplies you have to carry otherwise. As you know by now, even after you have freed yourself from the cumbersome diaper bag, you still have to keep supplies for a change of clothes, possible snacks, and more. Including a few small rewards in this bag will help you and your child maintain a consistent motivation method for potty training. If you choose to keep rewards with you, make sure you consider which rewards will best fit in with your daily routine.
Another possible solution is to teach your child that rewards are not always available. You can either teach him that he will receive a reward when he gets home, a method that will encourage patience and understanding, or you may simply teach him that he will not get a reward every time he uses a toilet. While this is a viable solution, consistent rules are typically easier for children to understand than varying rules. This means that, while you may find it awkward or burdensome to carry rewards with you in addition to all of your other parenting supplies, it may be more effective than the alternative solutions.
Problem: Many parents who have used rewards to help motivate their child for potty training have found later that their children begin to expect rewards for all positive behaviors. As you teach your child about potty training as a Big Kid responsibility, he will likely remember the language you have used as well as the basic idea that responsibilities equal rewards. As you incorporate more responsibilities—such as picking up his toys, behaving well in stores, and minding his manners with adults—he may begin asking for, or even demanding, his reward for everyday, run-of-the-mill Big Kid responsibilities.
Solution: What you already know and your child needs to learn is that rewards come in all forms. A reward for potty training likely comes in the form of a more explicit reward such as a new toy for many reasons. After all, your child is younger, the responsibility is more difficult, and the goal is rewarding for you and him. With other behaviors, however, you have more lessons to teach your child. The first lesson is the built-in reward. If he picks up his toys, he gets to play with more toys. If he behaves well in the store, he gets to keep going to the store. And the list goes on. The point is that he has already been enjoying the privileges that come with what are now his responsibilities. Therein lies the second lesson: some responsibilities are just part of being a big kid. Big kids behave themselves in public places because that is their responsibility, and your son will need to follow suit. He may resist these responsibilities at first, but over time he will learn that you cannot reward him every time he does something he is supposed to do. You can also help him by showing him your own responsibilities that may or may not come with rewards.