Teach kids to make the right choices for the right reasons

SEL Techniques

Teach kids to do the right thing for the right reason- SEL Technique

I've sworn off rewards charts. I want my kids to choose to do the right thing, not for some meaningless reward, but because it's the right thing to do.

Rewards-based discipline is everywhere these days. I figured out at one point, my daughter was spending every Friday afternoon at school watching movies. I’m not talking about those horrid educational movies they showed us when we were kids. (Anyone else remember “The History of Cranberries”? ) I’m talking Disney. DreamWorks. Nickelodeon.

Why was every single Friday afternoon an in-school vacation day? Because she had finished her work. Isn’t she supposed to finish her work? At the end of the year, she got another award for having finished her work every week. I had trouble congratulating her for getting to watch movies for 10% of the entire school year and then getting another award on top of it. It was getting out of hand.

We're teaching kids the wrong motivation

I understand the need for incentives. For some tasks or accomplishments, rewards and rewards charts are appropriate motivation for kids. But the practice has gotten so pervasive, we aren’t teaching kids to make good choices for the right reasons. They are learning how to make a good choice to get the reward, instead of making a good choice because it feels good to do the right thing.

Why I swore off rewards charts

One day I banned all rewards charts from my house. I considered a massive bonfire ceremony, but settled instead for a huffy lecture about making good choices for the right reasons. What was the straw on this camel’s back? For a few days in a row, my kids were bickering and constantly being mean to each other. In an attempt to help them see how negative they were being, I told them that for every negative comment they made, they’d lose a point. For every positive comment or action, they’d gain a point. At the end of the day, whoever had the most points would win something. I didn’t even tell them what they’d win. It didn’t matter.

Instantly, my daughter started saying nice things to her brother. She came up with outrageous compliments (Really? You’ve always admired the color he chose for his room?) and even offered to do his chores for him. But here’s the thing. It wasn’t sincere. She wasn’t doing it out of some epiphany about being kind to her brother. She wanted the points. She wanted the prize.

Making good choices for the right reasons

From that day forward we had a new policy in the house. We would make a good choice because it was the right thing to do. And we would relish the feelings that came with having made a choice we were proud of. We would pay more attention to the motivation or intent behind the kids’ choices than the surface-level show of it.

To support this new policy, we made a point of noticing how it felt when the kids made bad choices, and how it felt when they made good choices.

  • When they made a bad choice and were sad, we applauded them for noticing the signals their conscience was sending. We encouraged them to remember how tight their hearts felt and how disappointed they were— because that is what would keep them from making the same mistake twice. We taught them not to dwell on a bad feeling, but to learn from their experiences and use it to help them choose better next time.
  • When they were in a challenging or tempting situation but did the right thing, we hugged and celebrated how good they felt— how their heart soared and how they felt at peace with their decision.

Notice that they still made mistakes. They still had moments of success and failure. But along the way, they learned to be honest with themselves about their motivation, and they learned to take responsibility for their own actions. They weren't perfect then and they're not perfect now. But they started coming home from school to proudly tell me occasions throughout the day when they could’ve made a bad choice, but instead made a good choice. I’m not kidding. They really did. And they were so proud of themselves for it. That's better than any rewards chart.

Colleen Doyle Bryant

Author of social emotional learning books and teaching materials including Talking with Trees series for children and Truth Be Told Quotes for teens.