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Incentives for Motivating Children

What are incentives?

Incentives are rewards or prizes for good behaviors. Incentives are especially helpful for overcoming resistance when children are locked in a power struggle or control battle with their parents. Incentives replace words. They give a child a reason to end the power struggle.

How do I use incentives?

There are four rules that make incentives powerful:

  1. The incentive is strongly desired by the child. You can ask your child for ideas.
  2. The reward is given immediately after the child meets the goal.
  3. For new toys or games, the child is given access to the incentive for 30 to 60 minutes.
  4. The new toy reward continues to be owned and controlled by the parent.

The fourth rule is essential. The child's access to the toy, costume, or other incentive needs to be time-limited. That way your child is really earning a privilege and not another possession. That's the only way to maintain the incentive's value.

What are good incentives to use?

  • Access to a new toy or favorite toy
    • Trike or bike time
    • Electric train set time
    • Star Wars toys time
    • Lego project time
    • Car and truck time
    • Remote control dog or car time
    • Lion or dinosaur toys time
    • Creating jewelry or other craft time
    • Art or drawing time
    • Baking, cooking or tea party time
    • Water pistol or magic sword time
    • Reading or library time
  • New costume or outfit time
    • Batman, Spiderman, Snow White, Belle, etc.
    • Nail Polish
    • Special shoes or dress-up clothes
  • Video time
    • New movies or video games or YouTube favorites
    • Video recordings of favorite TV shows
    • Includes computer, smart tablet and smart phone time
  • Special foods
    • Sweets: candy, ice cream, or special cookies
    • Favorite foods (such as pizza or strawberries)
    • Food from a favorite restaurant
  • Small toys that they can keep
    • Rings, bracelets, necklaces
    • Animals, dinosaurs, cars
    • Parts of a collection
  • Money (coins) that they can save to buy something special

How can I get my child to do something for the first time?

You can add some surprise to the incentives by creating a treasure chest of wrapped prizes or slips of paper with different incentives written on them.

You can also reward breakthroughs or reaching big goals with a triple reward (such as going to a fast food place, picking out a video, and staying up late to watch it).

What is essential before incentives will work?

Your child has to feel loved. Lots of physical affection (hugs and kisses) is more powerful than words or praise to let your child know he is loved. Activities with you (playing board games, playing catch, reading, going to the park or on walks) are also important. Not only are they essential for your child's emotional growth and mental health, they also make your child more receptive to following your rules and requests. Children will not give up their tug-of-war if you show your anger or try to control them.

Written by Barton D. Schmitt, MD, author of “My Child Is Sick,” American Academy of Pediatrics Books.
Pediatric Advisor 2019.4 published by Change Healthcare.
Last modified: 2016-07-13
Last reviewed: 2018-07-13
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2018 Barton D. Schmitt, MD FAAP. All rights reserved.
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