Creating effective reward systems for young children

Children are incredibly motivated to get their own way, so a range of parenting techniques have had their rises and falls over the years. Thankfully, the days of widespread corporal punishment are over – modern parents favour the carrot over the stick. The trick now is to make sure you choose age-relevant carrots, because growing kids certainly let you know when they’ve outgrown your treats. So let’s divide the concept into age groups and find out what makes a good reward system.

The Five Ages of Reward

1. Baby (0–1)

This is the child’s stage of maximum dependency, and their needs will be vocally expressed 24/7. Sorry, parents, but there’s no reward system in the world that’ll work here. You just have to give them what they want. But don’t worry – it passes quicker than you might think.

2. Toddler (1–3)

This is when walking, talking and playing come to the fore, as do your child’s emotions. Children at this age are still totally dependent on you, although they might sometimes act like they’re not. The best rewards here are plenty of hugs, kisses and praise every time they take a major step (literally or figuratively speaking).

3. Early years (3–6)

These are the years when children have their first encounter with the naughty step (modern-day corporal punishment). It’s certainly not a silver bullet, but it really does teach kids that their consequences have actions. But that theory also works the other way, too. This is the age when they can be particularly eager to please – for a price. Expect to find your Chanel No 5 poured down the toilet without a hint of malice, but because it smelled funny (the toilet, that is).

Introduce a mindset of gently rewarding good behaviour now and it’ll make the next phase much easier. Toys, chocolate, trips to the cinema and play dates with friends all work well, especially if promised in advance.

4. Tween (7–12)

Now they’re really beginning to turn into small versions of their adult selves. They’re getting strong opinions, developing resistance to parental guidance and will start being mortified if they are treated like a younger person than their actual age. You might also be struggling with getting them to do homework at this age – but getting them to do it quickly is a habit you will not regret instilling in them later in life.

Tweens will be developing strongly in terms of mathematics, money and logic, so this is the perfect time to introduce a token-based system. You can set out values for certain actions, for example tidying their bedroom (2 tokens), doing their homework as soon as they get back from school Monday–Friday (10 tokens), putting their washing in the basket (1 token), eating dinner in less than 30 minutes (1 token).

You then produce a shopping list of treats that they can cash the tokens in for. They can go for lots of small wins (screen time, cakes etc.) or save up for bigger prizes, which will be determined by your budget, your time and your imagination. It’s a great way of teaching them the value of money, and tokens can also be used as discipline – they can be taken away for bad behaviour. You can stack your tokens against a scale with potential prizes, or just let them add them up.

Oh, and siblings can have different coloured tokens to avoid the inevitable theft and fraud.

5. Teen (13–18)

You’re kidding, right?

That’s a quick rundown of how a rewards system can buy good behaviour until it just comes naturally to your kids. Don’t stick to the age ranges too rigidly – you know your kids better than anyone. Just remember to always honour your side of the bargain. Fail to do that and the whole system collapses.