I was walking out of the gym the other night and overheard one of my top parenting pet peeves. A mom was walking out holding her two- or three-year-old daughter. She said, “You were such a good girl at daycare. Do you know what that means? That means you get a treat when you get home!”
It’s not that big of a deal once in a while, but this parenting technique rubs me the wrong way for many reasons. First, it uses food as a reward. We don’t want to teach our children to turn to food when they are feeling negative emotions or use food to reward themselves. It’s detrimental to our children to pair good behavior and treats. Second, it’s a delayed reward. Children aren’t mature enough to remember by the time they get home that the treat is related to their behavior at day care. It also isn’t a natural or logical consequence.
Third, many parents underestimate the power of a nice word, a pat on the back, or a hug. When you are trying to encourage good behavior, these are the powerful rewards you should rely on most often. Just saying, “Thank you for being good at day care!” and giving a smile and a hug are all that is necessary.
We all know it is sometimes easier to notice bad behavior in children than good. And I want to emphasize that it’s very important to point out behavior that you want to continue, but just do it in the right way. If you can be more specific in your praise, that’s even better. You could say, “I like the way you shared your toys with your friends at day care,” or, “I can tell you were kind to your friends, there was such a nice peaceful feeling at the day care,” or, “I appreciate that you do what your day care teacher asks you to do.”
I’m not a big fan of external motivators (also known as bribes) of any kind. I recommend using them only for situations that are temporary, such as a plane flight or a rare family event like a wedding or funeral. For circumstances that are commonplace or every day, such as church or day care or playing with friends, it’s best to reward good behavior with compliments and positive touches. These are powerful influencers to children and encourage eventual internal motivation.
For more on this topic, see Positive Reinforcement. Also, don’t forget some other important principles of good parenting: explain expectations, stay close to your children and practice patience.