Traverse City Record-Eagle

Evelyn Petersen: Ask Evelyn

October 15, 2011

Ask Evelyn: Modify children's behavior without bribes

Q: At our children's school they are trying a "new method" to teach kids good behavior. They are paying kids for good behavior with coins (play money).

In our family, we've always had both rules and consequences for breaking them, and our kids have always been praised for good behavior. We think it's ridiculous to pay children to be "good" at school. Good behavior is both expected and quite normal to our kids.

How can I explain to our kids why I don't want them to get paid to be good. I'd like more information about this method. -- Pam

A: This sounds like behavior modification; it's not really new. It's an old method that was very popular among educators in the '70s.

Here are the main points: The child is only rewarded for the "good" behavior, (e.g. the behavior desired by adults). In the beginning the child is rewarded every time the desired behavior is seen.

Later, when the child "learns" the correct behavior, the child is rewarded only occasionally.

Most importantly, the rewards can be social (hugs, smiles) or they can be material things like gold stars or tokens that are earned and traded in for something meaningful that the child wants.

This method was popular and usually worked, but sometimes the adults would become careless and reward the child to STOP misbehaving, instead of rewarding only good behavior. This destroyed the method; the child would simply repeat the misbehavior in order to get rewarded again.

Whenever an adult gives a reward to get a child to stop misbehaving, it is bribery and will not work.

If, however, the adult makes a contract with the child in which the desired behavior is explained as an expectation and which is rewarded AFTER it is seen, it is behavior modification. It's like Grandma always said, "Do the chores first and then you can have the cookie."

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