Incentives for Motivating Children

What are incentives?

Incentives are rewards for good behaviors. Incentives are especially helpful for overcoming resistance when children are locked in a power struggle or control battle with their parents. Rewards give a child a reason to end the power struggle.

How do I use incentives?

There are four rules that make incentives powerful:

  1. The incentive is strongly desired by the child. You can ask your child for ideas.
  2. The reward is given immediately after the child meets the goal.
  3. The child is given access to the incentive for 30 to 60 minutes.
  4. The reward continues to be owned and controlled by the parent.

The fourth rule is essential. The child’s access to the toy, costume, or other incentive needs to be time-limited. That way your child is really earning a privilege and not another possession. That’s the only way to maintain the incentive’s value.

What are good incentives to use?

  • Access to a new toy or favorite toy
    • Trike or bike time
    • Train set time
    • Star Wars toys time
    • Lego project time
    • Car and truck time
    • Remote control dog or car time
    • Lion or dinosaur toys time
    • Creating jewelry time
    • Art or drawing time
    • Water pistol time
    • Magic sword time
  • New costume or outfit time
    • Batman, Superman, Snow White, Belle, etc.
    • Nail Polish
    • Special shoes or dress-up clothes
  • Media time
    • New videos
    • Videotapes of favorite TV shows
    • Computer or video games
  • Special foods
    • Candy or sweets
    • Ice cream or popsicle
    • Special cookies
    • Favorite foods (such as pizza or strawberries)
    • Food from a favorite restaurant
  • Money (coins)

You can add some variety to incentives by making a grab bag of surprises or slips of paper with different incentives written on them. You can also reward breakthroughs or significant goals with a triple reward (such as, going to a fast food place, picking out a video and staying up late to watch it).

What should I NOT use as an incentive?

Physical affection (hugs and kisses) and parent-child activities (field trips, playing games, or reading) should not be withheld from a child or used as incentives. They are essential for your child’s emotional growth and mental health. Nurturing your child also makes the child more receptive to parental rules and requests. Likewise, physical activities (playing catch, going on walks or to the park) should not be withheld from your child. Fitness and endurance are important for your child’s physical health. However, you can offer “extra” parent-child activities as an incentive.

Written by Barton D. Schmitt, MD, author of “My Child Is Sick,” American Academy of Pediatrics Books.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2004-05-10
Last reviewed: 2014-06-10
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 Barton D. Schmitt, MD. All rights reserved.

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