Why I Stopped Rewarding My Kids For Good Behavior

I don't believe in the verbal conditioning that makes a child think they deserve a reward for every little good thing they do.

If you knew my dad during his lifetime, then you knew a pretty incredible person. He raised four daughters on his own, and he did it with a smile on his face and peace in his heart. I seriously never heard him cuss or complain. He also owned several successful businesses, taught us how to work on cars, cook and clean, and make friends. He taught us self-defense, and how to swim, and how to budget. He bought us horses, and built our forts, and kept us grounded and drug-free. He didn’t just raise his own kids though; he also provided a home for many of my aunts, uncles, and their kids at various times throughout my life, and he spent many summers taking care of cousins and other relatives whose parents completely neglected them. He didn’t just keep us alive; he took us on adventures, made us laugh, taught us to think critically, protect our minds and hearts, work hard, and play hard.

He wasn’t a perfect man or a perfect father, but he did a lot of good and he raised four (relatively) normal and successful women, all by himself. To this day, the four of us girls are working hard, raising families, building businesses and enjoying life. So he must have done something right.

I would give anything to go back in time and ask him what his secret was. How did he balance work and family life? How did he build a business and also take us on outdoor adventures every weekend? How did he get all four of us to behave, to be obedient even when he wasn’t watching, to stay away from drugs, to keep our bedrooms clean, to be kind to each other? I have so many questions.

Now that I’m a mother, I wish more than ever that I could talk to him about what it means to be a good parent. I look back on my childhood and try to collect little pearls of wisdom from lessons that he taught us and things that he said. There’s the typical stuff: pull your weight, clean your room, be kind, be honest, forgive freely, be generous but not gullible, work hard in school. But what about the ambiguous concepts, like disciplining your kids?

This question brings me to the purpose of this article. How did my dad choose to discipline and reward his kids? Well, he was definitely “old-fashioned” in a lot of ways; he raised us before Google, before Facebook and iPhones and Snapchat, before corporal punishment became such a vicious crime in the eyes of many people. Although there are many things about my childhood that you can’t even compare to the kids of today, there are a few things that could easily still apply.

How My Dad Raised His Kids

During my childhood, there were rewards and consequences, as there should be. But there are some phrases that just never came out of my dad’s mouth when we were growing up. One of those phrases was, “if you are good, then I will buy you (fill in the blank).” Similarly, I never heard him say, “if you behave yourself during this appointment, then we will go to (fill in the blank) afterward.”

That’s right. My dad literally NEVER made us believe that good behavior would lead to a special treat. He never offered us money for getting good grades, he never rewarded us for cleaning our bedrooms...and I’m not saying that it’s right or wrong, I’m just saying that it got me thinking.

Why did my dad choose not to bribe us with treats and rewards? And more importantly, why did we behave ourselves even when we didn’t get a reward for it?

We did it because we were expected to. Period.

It was an unspoken rule in our home that everyone “listens to dad.” No matter what. That’s not to say that we never had any fun or got any rewards, because that couldn’t be further from the truth. My dad took us on regular camping trips, hiking trails, and family vacations. He bought us clothes and makeup, he took us to theme parks, arcades, movie theaters, beaches, lakes, and rivers. I think we saw motorcycle races, dirt track races, and monster trucks every time they came to town. We seriously had SO MUCH FREAKING FUN! But, to be perfectly honest, I never really thought of that as a reward for good behavior. In my young mind, I just behaved good because my dad told me to, and I also had a lot of fun.

Like I said, it was an unspoken rule that we just obeyed my dad; good behavior was expected, and that was the end of it. The reward was also unspoken: everyone had a good day and got along and no one got into trouble for being bad. Here’s a real-life example from my childhood: my older sister and little sister got into a shouting argument and my dad sent them both to their room. We all wanted to go outside and play together but we couldn’t, because they were in trouble. They didn’t listen, they got sent to their rooms and couldn’t have fun, and that sucked. Lesson learned for all of us. My dad didn’t ever have to use the words, “if you’re good, then you girls can go outside and play.”

Of course, we would occasionally behave badly and end up getting grounded or getting spanked or going without movies and Nintendo games until dad felt we had learned our lesson, but it didn’t happen too often.

Raising My Own Kids

Fast forward twenty nine years, and here I am, a grown woman with two kids of my own. Granted, my kids are still small. My son is just five weeks old and my daughter will be two next month. This girl can test me and try my patience like no other. She’s an emotionally charged and somewhat unreasonable little tot. A few months ago I found myself completely overwhelmed by her behavior when it was bath time. I seriously asked her to be good about twenty times, I asked her if she wanted ice cream after her bath (big fat bribe), I tried walking her through the bathing process to calm her down. “Okay, we have to wash your hair now.” “Okay, let’s scrub your toes now.” *insert eye roll here* Yeah, nothing worked. It happened again a few days later at the doctor’s office and I asked myself, what would my dad have done?

Fact is, I know what he would’ve done. He would’ve EXPECTED good behavior and not tolerated anything less. He wouldn’t have asked me to be good, he wouldn’t have walked me through what to expect at the appointment, and he wouldn’t have bribed me with treats. He would have just gone about his day with his four little daughters in tow and would have expected us to behave. I know, because I was there. If someone acted up, my dad didn’t offer us rewards to be GOOD, he took away privileges because we were being BAD. I realize his system was a bit different than most modern American parents, but it worked for him, and it’s working for me.

Instead of saying “be good and mommy will get you ice cream after the doctor,” I simply say “we have to be good girls at the doctor’s office.” At our next appointment, my daughter fussed a little bit, and I did have to repeat myself a few times, but ultimately her behavior was commendable for a two year old in a doctor’s office. A few days later, we had another appointment and we did the same exact thing. I didn’t prepare her for what was to come, and I didn’t bribe her to behave. I simply held her hand and went about my business with her by my side and my newborn in the baby carrier. To my surprise, she behaved wonderfully. We definitely have to adjust our day for her age and abilities, but my point is that she doesn’t get a reward for doing what she’s supposed to do, which is behave herself. She gets lots of love, commendation, snuggles, and playtime...but no verbal affirmation that a reward will always come from good behavior.

So yeah. I’ve taken my dad’s path of parenting and skipped the bribes to get my kids to behave (for the most part). If everyone behaves, we’ll have a good day and no one gets into trouble for misbehaving, and that goes the same for any children in my care. The vacations and adventures and play dates are all just part of an awesome childhood that every kid deserves, they aren’t a reward for simply doing what you’re supposed to do, which is behave good and listen to your parents. It’s a work in progress and I’m learning what works as we go. We’ll definitely have to make adjustments as my kids grow older. But I can honestly say that I see HUGE changes in my daughter now that she knows what kind of daily consistency she can expect from me. I’m already prepping my newborn for this mentality by sleep training him and scheduling our days in an unspoken but consistent way.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Rewarding Good Behavior

Now let me say that I am not against providing rewards for your kids, especially for exceptional behavior or accomplishments. Rewards can be a good thing. So yes, I do reward my baby girl when she does something exceptional (for her age and ability). And I do provide lots of guidance and lots of adventure for her growing mind. I also commend her verbally when she does something good and give her hugs and high-fives to let her know that I’m proud of her when she’s helpful or brave.

BUT, I don’t believe in the verbal conditioning that makes a child think that they deserve a reward for every little good thing that they do. In other words, I don’t believe in bribing kids with a reward just to get them to do the things they’re supposed to do. That isn’t how I was brought up and that’s not how I’ll be raising my kids.

Sometimes I’ll screw up, and sometimes I’ll give in for the sake of getting some much-needed peace. But, most of the time, I’ll be following my daddy’s example so that I can raise strong, well rounded kids that respect me as their parent. Not because they’re getting a reward, but because they’re expected to. The reward will be unspoken but well deserved: an awesome childhood with great memories, fun adventures, and a good relationship with their mama.

You can follow our family journey on INSTAGRAM and read more on my blog,

- Cate Rosales