Many professionals who dispense parenting advice tell parents to use rewards or create "behavior modification" token systems to teach children a skill, to get children to take on a responsibility, or to curb an unwanted behavior or habit. Often, however, rewarding good behavior with behavior charts has the same effect as bribery.

Long-term studies of work incentives, behavior management programs for children, weight loss and stop smoking plans have all found similar, revealing results:

• Performance and quality of work declines over time because people are thinking only about the incentive or reward, instead of the value of what they are doing.

• If there is a loss of interest in the reward, people become less motivated to do the task.

• The work becomes an unpleasant task that is endured strictly to get the reward.

• People try to take short cuts to find the easiest way to finish the task, rather then challenging themselves to do the best job possible.

Change is short-term. When the incentives are gone, so is the motivation for doing the task.

B.F. Skinner, the father of behavior modification sciences, made a name for himself with his scientific research of the 1950's. He trained rats (and children later on), to repeat certain behavior by rewarding them for desired behavior and withholding rewards or applying punishment for poor behavior. His theories and practices have greatly influenced schools and psychologists for years.

Recently, B.F. Skinner himself has recanted some of his own earlier conclusions. He realized that rewards work well on rats, but humans have deeper motivations. He also lived long enough to see the negative long-term results of "conditioned responses."
After producing a generation of young adults who expect rewards for every little accomplishment, it is becoming obvious that creating such expectations and dependency is neither healthy nor realistic.

In several of my other articles (see list below), I share many ideas for motivating children to cooperate without resorting to bribery. However, you might choose to use a behavior chart anyway. If so, here are some suggestions for using behavior charts with fewer negative long-term consequences (although there will always be some):

• Promote internal competitiveness (doing one's best) rather then competing against others. Competition destroys teamwork and damages relationships. This especially applies to siblings.

• Make the tasks challenging, with a chance to learn new things. Explain the task in a way that makes it a meaningful contribution which will improve the family or person.

• Involve the people who will be using the charts in developing the charts. With children, use creative ideas, like gluing pictures of tasks, to make this a fun project.

• Have "rewards" be extra privileges or non-monetary bonuses, such as picking the place for a weekly family outing, having a friend overnight, extra time out on Friday night, choosing a family game or video, or choosing the dinner menu and helping cook it.

• Gradually phase out the chart as children learn new skills are reform habits. Wean children from rewards before they become addictive. Increase internal motivators through descriptive encouragement.

• Use the charts as reminders of agreements, not a record of rewards or payoffs. Focus on the child's accomplishments instead of giving demerits for poor performance.

When children accomplish something new or improve their behavior voluntarily, they feel a sense of self-respect that no sticker, candy, money, or reward can give them. Help children understand the value behind the changes you ask them to make and help them take responsibility for making those changes -- to feel better about themselves, not just to please you.

For more information on the long-term research on effects of behavior modification programs, go to and check out the following articles and book:

• "Punished by Rewards?: A Conversation with Alfie Kohn," Educational Leadership, Sept. 1995

• "The Case Against Gold Stars," October 1993, Parenting Magazine
Punished by Rewards (Houghton Mifflin, 1993/1999)

Author's Bio: 

Jody Johnston Pawel is a Licensed Social Worker, Certified Family Life Educator, second-generation parent educator, founder of The Family Network, and President of Parents Toolshop Consulting. She is the author of 100+ parent education resources, including her award-winning book, The Parent's Toolshop. For 25+ years, Jody has trained parents and family professionals through her dynamic workshops and interviews with the media worldwide, including Parents and Working Mother magazines, and the Ident-a-Kid television series. Jody currently serves as the online parenting expert for Cox Ohio Publishing’s mom-to-mom websites and also serves on the Advisory Board of the National Effective Parenting Initiative.