06/05/2016 13:06 BST | Updated 05/05/2017 06:12 BST

The Problem With Rewards and Sticker Charts

Reward charts are a mainstay of modern parenting. Stickers are commonly used in order to tame toddlers, stop tantrums and encourage kids to eat up their food, tidy their rooms and work hard at school. Children love stickers and surely if experts advocate their usage they must work?

Think again.

Scientific research indicates that this seemingly innocuous method of behavioural control may not provoke the desired response in our children. More concerning is that reward charts can actually undermine their future behaviour. With Psychologists highlighting that a child's motivation to repeat a task is actually lowered if they have received a reward for the task initially. This knowledge is leading many (including myself) to question their widespread use.

The use of reward and sticker charts stems from techniques of behaviour modification that have been popular for over half a century. The same knowledge gave us the basis for modern day dog training. Yet while rewards may help to train our dogs, do these methods really work to train our children?

What do we teach our children when we aim to modify their behaviour by rewarding them with stickers? Is there a chance we might teach the child that helping people is only worth doing if they are given a reward for doing so?

Reward charts and stickers usually produce quick, albeit temporary results, which is why they are so popular with the parenting experts you see on TV. They can enter a house full of tantrums and tears and seemingly turn around the behaviour of the children in less than three days, just by drawing up a reward chart. What you don't see though is what happens once they leave. The popular parenting experts aren't concerned with the long term, they need 'quick fix' options that look good on our screens, if in a year's time the techniques no longer work, or worse still cause a set-back in the child's behaviour, that's not their problem.

What happens when you use sticker charts and rewards?

Rewards work on increasing extrinsic (external) motivation. In the short term, rewarding the behaviour you want works quickly, but the effects however are very superficial. For a real change to take place we need to work with a child's intrinsic (internal) motivation.

Reward charts work only on a superficial extrinsic level which, whilst they produce quick results for little caregiver effort, can actually undermine intrinsic motivation. Or as parenting author Alfie Kohn says: "The more we want our children to want to do something, the more counterproductive it will be to reward them for doing it".

Rewarding desirable behaviour can ultimately make the child less likely to do the specific task unless they are given a reward. Rewards do not really change motivation at all; the child is just complying for the sticker. The child is not learning "right from wrong" or becoming a better person, instead they comply with their behaviour whilst the reward is on offer, but remove the reward and you lose compliance. The compliance that comes from rewards does not indicate an internally motivated change has taken place, nor is it long lasting. It is for this reason that so many parents who use reward charts have to keep using them, or resorting to more and more extreme methods of bribery to elicit the behaviour they want in their children.

It may only be a sticker today, but how do you get a 12 year old to 'behave' when they are no longer interested in stickers? How about a 16 year old? The trouble is if you have used stickers (and other rewards) when the child is young you are setting yourself up for great issues when they are older. That might seem like a long way off if you only have a three year old now, but I promise you it will go quickly!

Do you want to learn how to increase a child's intrinsic motivation and encourage better behaviour without rewards (or punishments)? If so, check out my new Gentle Parenting Book.