To reward or not to reward?


“Love is not a reward. Love is unconditional, it is the very fountain from which life flows” H. Burnard

Mary and Patrick are the parents of two beautiful twins 6 years of age. Mary writes as follows: I am struggling with the concept of rewarding our children for everything they do. Like many other parents I have a reward system, based on good behavior and help around the house. I have a sticker system on the fridge where we award our children with a star or a ‘sad face’ every day before bedtime. Every Friday we count the stars and if they have more stars than sad faces, they get a reward.

Lately I am not so sure that this is the right thing to do as I do not want to create the idea that you always get rewarded for doing the right thing. For me doing the right thing must not be based on rewards but rather a heart attitude. Can you please advise?

I simply love the movie “Mary Poppins (old version) I must have watched it a hundred times over. One of the famous quotes from this movie is where Mary Poppins says to the children; “In everything to be done there is an element of fun”.  even if you implement a reward system in your home.

Rather than choosing for or against a reward system from the outset, it would be advisable to consider the following:

1.      We all want the same outcome

I have yet to meet the parent who does not desire to have a well-mannered child that does the right thing at the right time. Saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and being grateful for the amount of energy and sacrifice you and others pour into what may seem an eternal black hole called raising your child.

No child is born with the knowledge of what acceptable and desired behavior is, well not until now, maybe in the future science will discover a way to pre-program babies before they are born but until then we can revert back to what has been tried and tested. Making use of a reward system may work for some children but not for others.  Using a reward system as a threat to get things done faster is bound to fail even before implemented. A reward system is not a quick fix for not explaining and talking through what is deemed as acceptable behavior and expectations. It is also not a clear-cut issue as at times you will have to bend the “rules” according to the situation of the day. Continuous rewarding can also create a sense of “entitlement” as if saying “it is my right” or “I have earned this or that”.

2.      We may look the same but not react the same

Parents soon discover that no two siblings are the same. They have very different characters, behave differently in the same environment, and react differently to the same triggers and rewards. There is no one size fit’s all. Girls and boys also react differently when the same set of rules are applied.

As much as every human is unique in their makeup, we need to make peace with the fact that we are part of a bigger picture. We are part of a whole and therefor we need to teach our children that there are times that we need to put our own uniqueness on the backburner for the sake of the bigger picture or the better of the family. The world does not bow to our individual quirks, it is rather the other way around.

3.       Life is not fair

At the end of the academic year schools usually host prize giving ceremonies. Prizes would be awarded mainly in one of three categories; academic, sport and the arts or culture.  For many pupils it may make them feel that they were not dealt the “intelligence, sport or other” card at birth.  They were not part of the elite group who would walk off stage with another certificate, trophy or badge to be sown onto their blazers.  Year-round those who were not rewarded felt reminded of their lessor status.

I have however also experienced the other extreme.  A principal of a school decided that if he could not reward every child at the school there would be no prize giving ceremony and there was none.

Life is simply not fair.  Without discouraging your child, this is a very necessary lesson to learn.

  1. The most important lesson to teach your child is to rejoice and be glad with and for those who achieved. Acknowledge, respect and honour that person for their achievement.
  2. Not all children who are rewarded at prize giving ceremonies were dealt the golden spoon at birth. Most work extremely hard and apply themselves in an extraordinary way to achieve their goals.
  3. Every person on this earth has some talent or gifting that can be acknowledged and therefore a victim mentality should not be allowed.
  4. We need not always be rewarded on the public stage. It is important to realize that no matter what we do, we do it to the best of our abilities – not only to promote ourselves but because we serve a higher purpose.
  5. Ignoring hard work and not giving any rewards can be very discouraging and it is important to find a good balance. Equal praise can be given when natural talent and hard work leads to growth and achievement.
  6. I have heard of many grandparents who reward their grandchildren at the end of the school year in some way acknowledging their hard work. Acknowledgement need not always come from an institution. You can have a family reward evening, where parents award children and children award parents. What fun!

Not rewarding at all can also be extremely discouraging, just think of your own ambitions and how you feel if you are overlooked for promotion?  Emphasis should never be on the physical reward but rather on what has been achieved as a whole.

4.      Intelligence comes in different forms

When hearing the word Intelligence  academic’s come to mind but  Psychologist Howard Gardiner gives other areas of intelligence:

 It is important to note that any individual can have strengths in several of these areas of intelligence:

  • Linguistic intelligence (“word smart”)
  • Logical-mathematical intelligence (“number/reasoning smart”)
  • Spatial intelligence (“picture smart”)
  • Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence (“body smart”)
  • Musical intelligence (“music smart”)
  • Interpersonal intelligence (“people smart”)
  • Intrapersonal intelligence (“self smart”)
  • Naturalist intelligence (“nature smart”)


1.  Naturalist intelligence

They are referred to as people with green fingers, it seems no matter what they put into the ground it grows. They are also referred to as animal whisperers and have a way and connection with animals. They are also very sensitive to the natural world and what happens in nature. During the drought in Cape Town many parents used the opportunity to make their children aware of the luxury of having water on tap. At the same time they learned that the same bowl of water can be used many times over. The reward lies in the fact that if I use water wisely, I give other the opportunity to also have water.

Plant veggies, it does require anything more than a small plastic container. Sow tomato seeds, lettuce, spinach. Draw up a chart of to do – watering every second day, pick off dead leaves and within 6 to 8 weeks your child will have their first crop. What a reward.

2.  Musical intelligence

  • Sensitive to sound, have a natural rhythm, recognizes tones and pitches.
  • Play by ear.  
  • Have a family concert, acknowledge their talent, suggest adding another instrument to the fray.

3.  Logical and Mathematical intelligence

  • They are drawn to games involving strategy and love puzzle solving.
  • When giving pocket money to your children teach them how to manage their money and if they are able to save a certain amount you will match it. What a reward!
  • At the end of every year let your children choose a puzzle that the entire family can build together. Once done, frame it as a reminder of the achievement.

4.  Spiritual and moral intelligence

  • These individuals often ask, ‘Why are we here?’ They are sensitive to mood and temperament shifts.
  • Make sure to set times aside for the family to discuss such questions, but don’t give straight-out answers. The rewards lie in the fact that they are able to express their opinions and think aloud.

5.  Linguistic intelligence

  • Words are their business, they think in words and drawn to reading, writing and public speaking.
  • Ask your child when old enough to suggest a book for family reading. Have an evening where you discuss what you have read. Let them do a family newsletter.

6.  Kinesthetic intelligence

  • Good fine and gross motorskills and mind-body co-ordination.
  • Good at dance and sport.
  • There are also kinesthetic learners, those who find it not only difficult to sit still to “learn” but learn through movement.  Children who are kinesthetic learners are sometimes labeled as ‘naughty’.  It is important that parents do not just fall into this trap and blindly discipline their ‘naughty’ children but rather seek expert advice to assist children through the learning process.
  • Don’t just send your child to tennis lessons, play a match with them. There is no bigger reward for a child than to ‘beat’ their parent at a game. 

7.  Intra-personal Intelligence

  • These individuals have a fine understanding of the human condition. They are often shy, philosophical and spiritual. 
  • These children often have “strange” friends, and are attracted to the broken wing children.
  • Encourage them to invite them to your home. The reward is to spoil them and give lots attention in the safety of your home.

8.  Spatial intelligence

  • Picture smart, three-dimensional insight, creative and often a vivid imagination.
  • Encourage your child to write a short story and enter into competitions.  Make an annual photo book of the family.
  • Go on a family photography excursion and let them make a calendar that the family can give as Christmas gifts.  
  • When the children are young let them pick the pictures and backgrounds and let their names be on the book/calendar as an acknowledgement of their contribution. Your children may even draw pictures that you can include in the family calendar.


Rewarding is not a system of punishment or a replacement for disciplining a child.   It is not a game of good versus bad, something versus nothing. It is all about acknowledgement and encouragement and once we as parents grasp this, we would have found a key that unlocks a thousand doors.

H Burnard

5.      Give it a break

Rather than placing the unbearable load of ‘having to perform’ on your child’s shoulders and causing a feeling of guilt when they do not perform 7 days a week, give the reward system a break. Start on a Monday and end on a Friday. This does not mean that the child can misbehave or not do their chores over a weekend but rather instill in them the trust that despite the system not being ‘functional’ on a weekend, you trust they will do what is right and necessary. As the child responds positively and the stars outweigh the sad faces; begin to work on a three-day system (Monday, Wednesday, Friday).  Soon your child will outgrow this kind of reward system.

‘Cleanliness is next to godliness’… well, so the saying goes.  My friend who had three boys soon found out that boys did not put a great deal of emphasis on the “cleanliness” part and could easily go to bed without a shower. She came-up with a good plan, they could choose either a Friday or Saturday to skip the “cleanliness” bit.  As parents we have to be creative.

Never withhold affection or food as a means of not rewarding your child. The only time that food could be withheld is where a child refuses to eat the ‘good’ stuff and only wants to indulge in ice-cream and cake as a meal.

The aim of the reward system is not to punish but rather to reward. ‘Sad faces’ may require an explanation but not equal a punishment. Stars should rather equate to a reward.

Withholding certain items or pleasures may work for some children while others may resent the parents. Keep a good balance in both the rewarding and the withholding if necessary.


6.       Children mimic behavior

We all subconsciously take on the behavioural patterns and antics from our role models.

Allow your child to reward you. What a crazy thought but what a sobering thought. For your child to “get it” you may want to include mom and dad on the reward system and allow your children to give you a star or ‘sad face’.

It may be that as parents you yell at your children. The only thing you will achieve by yelling is teaching your children to yell at others and lose their tempers. Let them reward you for not yelling at them, acknowledge where you have failed.

Picking up your clothes and putting them in the cupboard or laundry basket. This applies as a good exercise to both parent and child.

What is good for the geese is good for the gander.