THE MYTH OF THE EVIL CARROT. Which Works Better to Change Behavior...Rewards or Consequences?

Summary: What is the best way to change behavior in kids...rewards or consequences?

You might ask yourself why in the world I should be talking about vegetables with an attitude. I shall explain—I talk all the time about rewards and motivating good behavior in children. I think it’s extremely important that we look at motivation in general, when trying to change behaviors. I have never met the child who doesn’t want to do well or work hard for something motivating.

I am known for constantly telling parents that a good, strong, loving relationship foundation is the crux of seeing good behavior, good self esteem and good results in life for kids, but not all relationships are perfect and we are all human and have our imperfections. So, to me, looking both at improving the relationship and motivating the things being expected are important. When behavior needs to change, getting a start somewhere can make a big difference and doing what works can make an even bigger difference. The tricky part is what works for one may not work for another.

What exactly is the evil carrot? We’ve all heard about keeping the carrot in front of the proverbial horse so the horse goes where we want it to go. It’s a simple concept that gets a lot of bad press in my opinion. We and our children are not horses. That is a given. However, we do naturally have a tendency to need some type of goal oriented motivation. If the goal didn’t exist out there, we would not move. Psych 101. Why do I call it the "evil" carrot? I have coined this term after seeing the intense conflict for years and more recently, about Capitalism. I have written about this topic for many, many years, but it has become more of a hot button topic now, then ever before.

Some parents feel strongly that rewards are much better than consequences when trying to change behaviors. I believe it is very much a case by case thing, meaning that what works for one child and family won’t work for the next one. Many things need to be taken into account including the status of the family, the intensity of the behavior, the longevity of the behavior, the age of the child and the Psychological place the child is in at the time.

Giving rewards can be called bribery by some people, but to others, this is the essence of teaching Capitalism. Earning what you get with hard work. The idea of Capitalism is bothering some people in our society today. The idea of a lack of free will bothers some people a lot. If we change our viewpoint of the carrot and realize that it isn’t a matter of no free will, but instead is a matter of learning what works to get to where we need to go, as well as always having something to work toward, it becomes more of an advantage to have, rather than a problem. It can also teach a work ethic.

The way society thinks about and does things can have a very strong impact on what we do in our own families. If we want behavior, habit & thought change in our children, we need to look at our attitudes about what gets used to change that behavior. Bluntly speaking, if you want the change to work and stay, you have to use what works and what is meaningful. You have to help them learn the way they will live successfully as adults. If you have underlying problems with what works, you may be sabotaging yours and your child’s success and you should explore that.

When it comes to children or adults for that matter, having motivation is very powerful. The physical form of that motivation does not have to be material, by any means, but it does have to mean something to the person. For others, desire for profit can be very motivating. For those who feel that intrisic reward will produce the same goal without anything else that motivates, especially for kids, I would challenge them intensely. Intrinsic reward does happen, however, to get the child to go into and stay in the arena, there first needs to be some motivational goal. The love of the work can and does become intrinsic later.

My focus is about helping kids to develop their own ability to provide carrots for themselves. It’s really a survival issue. Also a freedom issue. Whether it’s schoolwork or friendship or work in adult life, having something to work towards, always is helpful and, in my opinion, not evil. In fact, I will go as far as saying that societies that look down on the "carrot" and take it away become dull, drab, broke and depressed. All throughout history you can see that.

While most people don’t seem to have a problem with the results that come from rewards, they do tend to have a large problem with the concept of carrots needing to be there to get the desired behavior from their kids. In fact, many people I’ve talked to are firm believers that the carrot isn’t necessary at all and that reasoning and talking are what bring about change. Reasoning and talking are great when they are timed right, but many parents are dealing with kids with significant behavior problems and they cannot even get them to the table to do the talking, let alone anything else. In that situation, talking and reasoning will be the follow up.

What does this say about us as a society? Many people who feel the carrot is evil, will say that our use of it, says we are terrible. I think, it says that we are normal. It’s natural to go toward good things and away from bad things. Again, just Psyche 101. Not bad not good. And to those who argue that reward is not important, I ask them, would any of you continue to go to work if your paycheck stopped today?

Are you a person who supports rewards, supports appropriate consequences or some other unique way of changing behavior in kids? Love to hear from my readers, so give me your 2 cents.

Dr. Sherri is a Child and Family Processing and Motivation expert seeing people via webcam. For more info click here.

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Stewart Segal, MD May 09, 2012 at 12:48 PM
Excellent article! Keep up the good work.
Thanks Dr. Segal! Hope you are doing well!
jill firestone May 09, 2012 at 11:09 PM
I am totally in favor of consequences....take away something that "hurts."
Hey Jill, Thanks for commenting!
Lauren Bondy, MSW May 10, 2012 at 02:28 PM
As a social worker and parent educator of thousands of parents, I respectfully disagree Dr. Sherri. Your point at the end sums up the article by saying "many parents are dealing with kids with significant behavior problems and they cannot even get them to the table to do the talking, let alone anything else." But using a carrot to get them "to the table" does not solve the root problem as to why they are not coming to the table in the first place The carrot puts a band aid on the real issue and doesn't teach the child what they need to learn or help them develop the skill they lack. Parents need to ask themselves what is getting in the way for my child? what is blocking him? what skills need development? how can I effectively teach him? When we hold a carrot (or punish), parents may get the behavior they want but miss the opportunity to help the child learn. At best, the "cooperative" behavior is typically temporary. They come with 1 "carrot" today and next week, it requires two carrots and then ten carrots, etc. The underlying problem remains unsolved. Most parents approach parenting with a small palette of tools. Carrots? Punishment? This is not sufficient to help children build the internal skills they need. Parents can get great results with setting limits effectively, using enforceable statements, or numerous other tools. Most parents aren't aware of options other than carrot or punishment. Conscious Parenting requires a wider palette of tools.
Hi Lauren, Thanks for your comment and your point is a valid one. My point isn't that rewards or punishment are where it ends. I also teach parents a whole group of skills to help their child, including behavior, processing skills, controlling physical behavior etc. My point actually was that when a parent cannot get anything started to be able to even teach those skills, the initial response needs to be somehow motivating enough to get the child aware and available to learning the rest. The parents I have seen who try to reason and talk a misbehaving child into learning other skills usually end up with worse behavior or even worse, giving up. Having a structured set of rules, boundaries, rewards and consequences has helped so many families I have seen to make the first steps into being able to get the behavior under control. After the initial setting up of those boundaries, teaching those skills is very important. I don't see any behavior advice working when it is only about rewarding or punishing, without also growing those positive skills as well as getting the relationship between the parents and child where it should be as well, but to those parents who I have worked with who feel completely out of control and cannot get their child to do anything, that initial straight behavior program has been a great relief to them and a way for them to re-establish contact with their child.
C Meyers September 21, 2012 at 10:25 PM
I just wanted to say that the pressure in society is to punish or take away privileges for bad behavior. There are times when that works, but sometimes positive rewards help teach the child to work toward a goal. As an example, instead of waiting until Christmas and just giving our boys a Playstation game system, we have told them that they earn stars toward that system for things we deem good behavior. For the 9 year old, it is picking up his room, helping with other chores, and finishing his homework. For the 5 year old, it is a simpler version. They have been working a little bit all summer toward this long-term goal and, I think, they are learning that you have to work for what you want. I see nothing wrong with that. When they don't pick up their toys, we just remind them that they are working toward the playstation.
Gary September 21, 2012 at 10:33 PM
I second that idea. In fact there is an excellent book that concentrates entirely on behavioral modification using positive re-enforcement. It's called: "The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child: With No Pills, No Therapy, No Contest of Wills" The book is poorly titled because his methods work for children that don't have any behavioral problems at all. It's a general behavioral modification technique. I can tell you that the methods in this book work exactly as advertised. I read it, I didn't believe a word of it, I tried it, and it worked perfectly. It's a scientific formalization of the idea you just introduced.


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