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Should Good Behavior Be Rewarded?

Updated: Feb 13, 2023

“Will we get a treat?” is a question I have been asked on more than one occasion during tutoring sessions with young students. The question would usually come up before starting or after completing an assignment. When inquiring as to why the question was being asked, one student replied, “Well, our teacher gives us a treat when we're good.”

Growing up, I have no memory of teachers giving students a treat for completing work or exhibiting proper behavior. That being said, rewarding students for appropriate behavior has been the norm for years. As an elementary classroom teacher, my colleagues and I regularly employed a reward-based behavior management system. By the time I moved into administration, schoolwide behavior management systems had become the norm. Looking back now on the trajectory of student misbehavior that led to the subsequent need for reward-based systems, I shudder with dismay wondering why, as a society, we ever allowed ourselves to reach a point whereby it became necessary to reward children for proper behavior.

Decades ago, front line workers dealing with students on a daily basis, noted concerning changes in student behaviors, even sounded the alarm. Sadly, their concerns were not sufficient to override the new wave parenting philosophies and social sway taking hold at the time; philosophies that the masses readily bought into, oblivious to the potential harm that would eventually come to fruition. How did we go from following rules because such was the right thing to do, to having to be rewarded for doing so?

Progressive child-rearing ideas introduced in the late 1960’s advocated the benefits of families becoming more democratic by allowing children of all ages greater freedom to outwardly express their opinions and be active participants in family decisions. Children’s feelings were increasingly allowed to influence parental decision making, sometimes in lieu of more sound judgment. Society lost sight of the fact that with the exception of the first few years of life, parents, not children, are to be at the center of the family unit. The traditional parental leadership role that included protecting, guiding, instructing, and disciplining children in a way that commanded (not demanded) a reverential respect was being undermined, setting the stage for bargaining and bribery. Allowing children to impact decisions about issues for which they lacked adequate maturity laid the foundation for the sense of entitlement that continues today.

I believe in childhood surprises and providing children with special activities. I believe in families creating positive childhood memories. But the reality is: More children than ever before are acting out be it through yelling, shouting, ignoring, defying, talking back or dictating what they will and will not do in order to get what they want. Too much freedom and too little guidance at too early an age for far too long have culminated into a "cancer" that continues to erode our culture. Worn down and worn out, many parents have effectively lost control of their children.

With misbehaving, entitled students driving teachers out of the classroom in droves and unspeakable acts of violence occurring every day in this country, we are reaping what we have sown. Rewarding appropriate behavior in order to get children to behave appropriately is counterintuitive. “If you’ll do _____, I’ll give you _____,” has resulted in increasing numbers of children unable to internalize and appreciate doing the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do.

©Sharon Knapp Lamberth, January 2023

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Jan 29, 2023

I found your wonderful article "Should Good Behavior Be Rewarded?" very thought provoking! It does seem that we now have an accepted system of rewarding children with desired items at almost every turn. As a child who grew up in the 1960s and 70s, rewards for good behavior were not even on the radar in our household. Good behavior was expected from us at a very early age and we rarely challenged it. At school, there may have been the occasional star sticker placed at the top of a well done paper. However, the sticker was not done routinely nor expected. We understood the grades themselves were important. Our parents did not reward good report cards exce…

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