On Teaching Responsibility: Rewards and Incentives

By Allison O'Connor

boy and puppyLike many single moms, for the past year, I’ve been struggling with how to get my 7-year old to take an interest in earning chore points for rewards. I thought dangling a new bike in front of her for easy household chores would be the ultimate incentive. But each day when I would remind her to make her bed or pick up her toys or clothes, she half heartedly complied. Maybe the carrot was too far out of reach or she just didn’t care. But, I soon discovered I needed a new approach to teaching my child how to be responsible for her things.

Then a couple of days ago it all fell into place. A stray dog wandered into our yard and into my daughter’s arms. Clearly abandoned, and barely two-months old, my daughter was in love. With tears in her eye she begged and pleaded her case for keeping the puppy by saying she would be completely responsible for the dog, even promising to use her piggy bank money to buy food and a new collar. After all, as she pointed out, she had been taking care of her Webkinz (virtual pets) for years.

So, together we sat down and wrote out a contract outlining what it would mean to care for a puppy; walks, cleaning up after a dog that was not yet house broken, training her, feeding her, bathing her, disciplining her, etc. We both signed the contract with the clause that should she lose interest and not hold up her end of the bargain, we would find a new home for the dog.

Three days into life with a new puppy, I am delighted (and quite frankly surprised) to report that my daughter has taken on the role of mother to this new puppy, even getting up at 12:30 am with me for a puppy potty break.

I realize this method of teaching responsibility may be short lived and not ideal for every child. But it seems to have taught my child a valuable lesson, how to put someone else’s needs before your own. Not an easy concept for a 7-year old to grasp. Yesterday she didn’t go swimming with her friends because she had a new puppy that needed her attention. She has also been more helpful around the house and I haven’t had to tell her once in the past three days to make her bed or pick up her clothes and toys.

I hope this is not a phase and after the novelty wears off, I’m the one picking up the poop. We’ll just have to see. Teaching responsibility to children is not easy but an essential part of parenting. Every child is different and in some cases, a reward system or incentives may not work at all. But here is what I’ve learned that may help you:

1. If you are setting up a rewards system for chores and responsibilities, make sure you involve your child in selecting the reward or rewards. That was the mistake I made. I naturally thought my daughter would like a new bike. Well, she really didn’t. Had I asked her to choose what she wanted, we may have saved ourselves 6-months worth of arguing over her doing chores.

2. Agree on the types of chores and a time frame for when the chore will be completed.

3. Establish the consequences for not doing a chore. Will she lose a point or not get her full allowance?

4. Build in added incentives if she puts more effort into a chore or willingly does a task not on her list.

5. Make sure the reward(s) are within reach. In my case, my daughter needed 130 chore points in order to get a new bike. Well maybe that would have worked if the reward was a new puppy. But, after a few weeks, she only had 10 chore points and lost interest completely. In hindsight, I should have set up levels that had rewards attached to each level.

6. Praise your child at the end of the week or after a particularly challenging chore. This helps build self-esteem and after a while, your praise and acknowledgement may mean more than the actual reward. At least it seems to work with the puppy!

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