Rewarding toddlers for good behaviour
Does your toddler always expect a reward? And when is a reward actually a bribe?
According to parenting expert and author, Karen Sullivan, what rewards to give, and when, are common problems for parents of toddlers.
“The problem is that children of this age can’t really grasp the concept of delayed gratification,” says Karen Sullivan, parenting expert and author. “But don’t give up on the star chart – if your toddler understands that doing things well adds up to a nicer reward in the long run, he’ll soon come on board.”
“I’ve offered to buy him a tractor as a reward, but only when he’s got lots of stars on his chart and has slept the night in his own bed. The problem is he wants to have the tractor everytime he does something good – like a wee in the potty or after tidying up – and that’s not the point!” Lottie, 28, mum to Richard, 2, explains.
In this situation, Karen suggests the best thing to do is keep the reward small, “Buy some stickers or cars, if that’s what he likes, and offer one as an ‘instant’ reward every time he sleeps in his bed.”
Your toddler expects a reward for everything
One risk with instant rewards, however, is that your toddler can end up expecting one every time he does something good.
“Maurice hates having his nappy changed so once, to keep him quiet, my husband, David, told him that if he was good he could have a treat. It worked and Maurice let him do it,” says Janie, 38, mum to David, 2. “But now he demands a sweet every time he has his nappy changed!”
More like this
“To break the habit, pile all the new nappies into a basket and put a star sticker on a third of them,” suggests parenting expert Karen Sullivan. “Every time he gets his nappy changed, he’ll have to wait to see if he has ‘won’ a small prize.”
Your toddler demands bigger rewards
As well as expecting a reward each time he’s good, your toddler could start to demand bigger and better treats each time.
“A reward chart was great for toilet training,” says Bethany, 35, mum to Liza, 2. “But soon a star wasn’t enough – we moved on to Dora stickers and then fun-sized chocolate bars. It’s lucky I have a Mary Poppins style bag, as all hell would break loose if I didn’t offer her a reward when we’re out and about!”
“Create a ‘lucky dip’ treat bag full of small rewards of equal value, such as stickers, sparkly hairbands and snacks. She’ll love the mystery – and you’re not depriving her of anything because you don’t know what’s going to come out of the bag either. Be careful about what you offer though – one chocolate button will lead to pleas for more.”
You use rewards at mealtimes
Using rewards at mealtime isn’t a good idea according to parenting expert Karen, as it can backfire.
“Bertie’s going through a fussy phase with food,” says Andrea, 35, mum to Bertie, 2. “At first, I’ll offer him a trip to the swings if he eats up, but when that doesn’t work, I say that he can have his favourite ice cream or cake if he eats all his tea.”
“Avoid rewards at mealtimes,” advises Karen. “Put the food in front of your toddler and, if he doesn’t eat, pay no attention.
“Don’t offer alternatives. All kids go through a fussy phase and they come round sooner rather than later. But if he’s offered an ice cream or cake, he’ll associate rewards with food, and this can encourage ‘comfort’ eating and lead to weight problems.”
Rewards when you’re out of the house
It’s not just at home that issues of rewards arise – rewards can become problematic when you’re out, too.
“If my kids behave well when we’re out, I tell them they can have a treat,” says Francis, mum to Cleo, 3, and Charley, 20 months.
“But it’s virtually impossible to decide on what to give them when they’re both shouting demands in my ear.”
“Planning ahead can stop you caving into your child’s demands,” says Karen. “Pre-arranged treats work best. If toddlers are given free rein, they’ll demand things outside your budget.”
And what about when, like Louise, you have two or more toddlers to reward? “Learning to share is important, but I think rewards have to be individual,” says Karen.
When is a reward really a bribe?
We all occasionally feel bad about dishing rewards out, wondering if they aren’t just bribes. So what’s the difference between a reward and a bribe?
- A bribe is something you offer your child in the heat of the moment
- A reward is something agreed in advance and therefore allows you (in theory, at least!) to stay more in control
Six big family moments that matter – and the products that make them easier to navigate
These products from John Lewis & Partners help support the memorable moments of family life.