“The practice of rewarding people conveniently spares us from asking hard questions about why we are asking people to do things that are devoid of interest in the first place” (Kohn, 1999, p. 89).

A positive reinforcement refers to when a child’s pleasing behavior is followed by something desired such as a toy, candy, ice cream, praise, or stickers (Berger, 2018; Berk, 2013).  The idea is that this will make the child’s desirable behavior more likely to occur again, by giving the child something that he or she finds rewarding (Berk, 2013).  “You behaved well at the doctor or dentist’s office, you get a lollypop and a sticker.” It is interesting to note that the item given by the adult must actually be rewarding for the child.  A teacher can give her or his class extra time at recess for behaving well, but if a child does not like recess, then this will not serve as a positive reinforcement for him or her (Berger, 2018).

Caregivers often think of reinforcements as being better than punishments, but there are downsides.  Doing homework and chores is something that children should do because they are part of the household and a student at that school.  Should they have to be bribed to clean their room?  Isn’t the goal for them to behave well because of an internal motivation rather than because they are going to get something?  Adults won’t always be there to give them rewards and they need to learn to behave well because of an internal desire to do so.  

Kohn (1999) says that “rewards kill interest” in an activity (p. 71).  Children are smart and they think, “If you have to bribe me to do it, it must not be that good a thing.”  “If you have to offer ice cream to go to the park, then the park must not be fun, and I don’t want to go.”  That’s the message adults are giving them.  “You want me to color a picture, and you keep giving me stickers to do it, maybe coloring isn’t what I want to do.” 

Surprising children after they did a desirable behavior is much better than them knowing ahead of time that they’re working for a reward, or that they’re competing against each other to get a reward.  This kind of in-class competition for a reward pits children against each other (Kohn, 1999).  It can create an atmosphere of jealousy instead of one of cooperation.  For more on reinforcements see the following video and article, and read Alfie Kohn's book.

Videos   (Stop at 1:28)


Berger, K. S. (2018). The developing person: Through childhood and adolescence (11th ed.). New York, NY: Worth.

Berk, L. E. (2013). Child development (9thed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Kohn, A. (1999). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.