Living with Children: Rewards for obeying good or bad?


QUESTION: My husband sometimes gives our very stubborn seven-year-old daughter “prizes” for doing what she is told. The other night, for example, Juliette didn’t like what I chose for her to wear the next day to school and threw a mega-tantrum. I didn’t give in, but the next morning, she came downstairs saying she looked stupid and began weeping piteously, which never fails to tug at my husband’s heartstrings. Without my knowing, he took her aside and told her if she wore what “Mommy picked out for you,” he would take her to her favorite store on the weekend (which he did, over my objections). I think this was wrong, wrong, wrong, but he insists that it doesn’t hurt to do it every so often, especially if it’s going to restore peace to our household. Help us!

ANSWER: Before I answer your question, I’m going to point out that a conflict between you and Juliette over what outfit she wears to school strongly suggests that you are guilty of what I call Magnificent Maternal Micromanagement (MMM). If that’s true, you’re hardly alone among today’s moms, which should be no consolation at all.

I mean, let’s face it, events such as formal weddings aside, a seven-year-old is certainly qualified to pick out her own school clothes. And if Juliette doesn’t choose for herself the outfit you would choose for her, so what? Developing a fashion sense takes some trial and error, don’t you agree? Or do you think that such things as wearing the “wrong” outfit reflect badly on you (a common feature of MMM)? It could very well be that your micromanagement figures largely in the problems you’re having with Juliette. Furthermore, a warning: A tendency on your part to over-control your daughter at this relatively early stage of the parenting game is likely to precipitate rebellion during the teenage years.

All that aside, I agree with you where this thing of “prizes” is concerned. Children should be taught do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do. Your husband is obviously a big-hearted guy with the best of intentions, but outcomes are not determined by intentions.

Indeed, rewards often solve immediate problems, as evidenced on the morning you described. Eventually, however, they contribute to even more disobedience, irresponsibility, tantrums, and so on. You name the behavior problem, rewards are counterproductive in the long run.

So, where this matter of prizes for proper behavior is concerned, you win, but you are hardly free of parenting error. For you and your husband to get on the same page, which is key to heading potential teenage issues off at the proverbial pass, you need to rein in your need to be in control of every little parenting detail. And he needs to rein in his big heart.

[Family psychologist John Rosemond:, Copyright 2021, John K. Rosemond]