Should a parent give a child a tangible reward when he or she has behaved properly or performed some important task such as doing homework or helping around the house?
Understandably, many parents are hesitant to use incentives such as prizes or food treats to influence their children, especially considering the negative comments by many (though not all) contemporary parenting experts. For many parents, giving their children rewards feels like bribery, and should be thus
avoided. Some parents object to giving rewards because they feel that a child will end up wanting a reward for everything he or she does.
What is the Jewish perspective on all this?
Maimonides (1135-1204), one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of all time, advises motivating a child by promising, "read, and I will give you a nut or a fig." Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, author of the Chassidic text Tanya, explains, "since a child's mind is immature, he or she desires and loves small things of inferior worth." In other words, the mind of a child has not yet matured into a mind that
is capable of being motivated by altruism; according to Rabbi Schneur Zalman, children will not do things just because they are the right thing to do.
In truth, almost all adults will only work and sacrifice if there is a reward. Typically, the reward is in the form of a paycheck, but sometime the reward might be personal honor, or fame. Children are no different!
There is a danger in not accepting that children require motivating. Children, when their efforts are not acknowledged, can be "turned off" to learning and cooperative behavior, which then can lead to developmental and social difficulties. At times, simple praise may be enough to acknowledge a child's accomplishments. Often, however, and especially with very young children, praise needs to be combined with something tangible like a sticker, or candy, or an allowance.
As parents, we must be realistic and practical. We cannot motivate a child with things they don't want, even if our intentions are to educate them in the "true and noble ways" of life. We all want our children to be cooperative about doing their homework, be helpful around the house, and respectful to others. Yet to accomplish these correct goals, we need to bend-down to the mental and emotional level of the child and offer a "jelly bean" with our a bit of praise.
Certainly, not all good behavior needs to be, or should be, rewarded. Most children seek to please and want, at times, to cooperate. However, if the child resists complying for whatever reason for certain tasks or attitudes, this is a sign that probably a reward for compliance should be offered. Sometimes, a
negative consequence should be assigned for refusal to cooperate, if the reward does not sufficiently motivate.
To be effective, rewards should always match the child's level of maturity. Maimonides suggests that when the child outgrows a desire for "dates and honey," he or she should be offered "nice clothes or money."
As our children mature, it should be our goal to decrease external rewards and encourage more internal, self-motivating ones, and ultimately, if the child grows-up with spiritual and
religious values, true altruism.
Children are very receptive and excellent learners. When they repeat a behaviour many times it becomes "second nature." If we want our children to become exemplary adults, we must insist upon, and encourage, proper behavior and
attitudes when they are young.
Once a behavior or attitude becomes second nature, it no longer needs to be externally encouraged. For example, if a child develops good study habits when young, as a result of parents having rewarded him/her for this behavior, typically, as a teen and adult, he or she will continue to have good study
habits, because it has now become a personal value, and external rewards are no longer necessary.
The Jewish way is to acknowledge a child's accomplishments by giving generous praise and rewards. Tangible rewards help children improve in learning and good behavior. Self-esteem is also enhanced, since the child is being recognized for
behaving properly. A child, and even a teen, likes to know they are doing a good job, and a tangible reward sends that message loud and clear.