Making Children Mind…Encouragement vs. Reward

Understanding the difference between encouragement and reward and when to use each with your children. Discipline tips for parents.

Mother and son cuddling

Dr. Kevin Leman states that encouragement is superior to rewards when working to get kids to obey (Making Children Mind Without Losing Yours, starting on page 50).

Are you squinting your eyes as you try to visualize the difference between encouragement and rewards? Let’s elaborate.

Leman says the difference between encouragement and rewards is subtle, but significant. He starts off by pointing out that you can get children to do things by offering them some reward that is of value to them. For your three year old, that might be candy. For your pre-teen, that might be money.

He then asks the question, why do you want your child to do things? For money? To know responsibility? Because he is a member of the family? Because things need to be done? Leman says three of these reasons are a different motivation than one. Money is not what you want to be the motivator.


Leman points out that we should not give our children rewards for things they should be doing anyway. You want your children to do things for the right reason. Are there times you will use reward systems? Of course! The -wise series offers different scenarios when you might use a reward. I am reminded of “Three Candy Speed” discussed in On Becoming Toddlerwise. You use this to teach your children what “fast” looks like. But the authors suggest you use the candy one time, not every time.

Read: Encouragement as a Discipline Tool

In On Becoming Pottywise, the system for toilet training involves rewards. So yes, there are times you will use rewards to be an extra motivator, but you don’t want that to be the only motivator, or even a consistent motivator.

So how do you encourage? Encouragement is a word of affirmation–one of the five love languages. Encouragement needs to emphasize the act, not the person. Leman says that this ensures the child that your love is unconditional. You don’t say, “What a good boy you are!” You say something like, “What a nice job you did! I bet you feel great about it. Thank you for your help, I appreciate it.” Our children need to know that they are not loved only when they perform correctly.

Encouragement versus reward when parenting pinnable image

I must confess that I often find myself saying, “you are a good boy!” when Brayden helps out around the house. I have seen that he will seek reassurance when he helps out and says, “I am a good boy for helping you, huh Mama!” I can see where Leman is coming from. I need to work on making sure Brayden knows that he is loved no matter what. I do think he is a good boy for helping out around the house, but I can express that in other ways so he doesn’t think I am only happy with him when he is helping. I don’t necessarily think he thinks that, but I could see it getting there some day as he gets older and insecurities start to take a role in his life.


15 thoughts on “Making Children Mind…Encouragement vs. Reward”

  1. I struggle with this one a lot! I often already find myself saying "what a good boy" when Tobias obeys me, picks up his toys, pets the kitty nicely, or pees on the potty. I really need to practice focusing on the action vs. him because I totally agree with Leman on this one.

  2. I am so impressed by this that I'm going to get this book! A book that I'm a huge fan of states the same thing ("Positive Discipline") and as odd as it may sound the best thing I can relate to is my line of work.While I'm a new mommy I've been a mommy and behavior specialist for dogs for 10 years. I only use positive reinforcement training, or so it's labeled but I often run into the problem of my clients saying, "But he only works if I have a dog treat, what about when I don't have one? . . ." So we have to teach dog owners how to teach a dog (possibly harder than a human that can reason and understand) this same premise.

  3. This question is totally unrelated to this topic, but I couldn't find "contact info" for you, so I thought I'd post my question here:My DD started sleeping through the night at 5 weeks and has always done AMAZING at night. She's 15 months old now, and for the past week or so, she's been crying after we leave the room. It's not a hard cry. Just kinda pouting. But as of right now, she's been doing it for 25 minutes. For the last few nights, we've gone in there once each night to settle her, but we feel like it's becoming a pattern now. AHH. What do we do? How long is too long to let her pout/cry? Any advice? I can't figure out what might be wrong.Loir @

  4. Lori, my DD did the same thing at 15 months (a month ago) and we finally realized that she just didn't need as much sleep during the day. I cut her morning nap down about 15 minutes so her afternoon nap could start and end a little earlier and it fixed the problem (for now!) for us. I guess she just wasn't as tired before and that made it hard for her to settle down right away. That might have something to do with it in your situation??I know what you mean by worrying about creating habits going to in settle her when she's been so good about it before! Good luck!

  5. We have used treats to encourage our 3-year-old son while potty training and even getting him to stay in bed through the night. After reading this post, I think we should take a different tack for staying in bed, since it is definitely something he ought to be doing anyway. With potty training treats worked pretty well up to a point but the real breakthrough was when he finally did #2 in the potty and DH and I were so happy and excited. He got a treat that time but he hasn't been asking for one when he goes potty anymore. Instead, he says, "I make Mommy Daddy happy." I don't think either one of us said those words to him (not sure, though) but he gets his motivation from that now. It was a long journey to get him to go that first time, though…

  6. Stacy, that will really help you with the older toddlers and kids 🙂 I agree–it is likely harder to teach a dog than a person…though dogs do have their easier points. You should come train my dog–she is a lab! Wonderful dog but full of energy, of course.

  7. Lori, if there is nothing wrong, then she is using it to get you back in the room. She is definitely old enough to figure out that the pouting brings a repeat visit from mom and/or dad. If you do go in there, don't repeat songs, hugs, prayers, etc. Go in, attend to the problem, then leave. Don't let it become a way to drag out bedtime. You might try explaining things to her. She is old enough to understand quite a bit.Jennifer's idea is a valid one, so consider that. Also consider sickness, teething, etc. Once you know everything is fine, then move toward no visiting after bed. While you are figuring things out, when you do re-visit, keep things matter-of-fact and simple.

  8. Kristy,An idea for you is to apply a special priviledge to staying in bed. For Brayden, we used TV time. TV time is a priviledge, not a right. He needs to earn it. So if he got out of bed, he lost his TV priviledges. I do have a post on toddler/child getting out of bed, also.

  9. Thanks! That post is completely on target for what we've been going through with my 3-year-old, and somehow I missed finding it on your blog. I think the keys are going to be consistency, retraining on the expectations and telling time on his clock, and linking the right privilege to it. He is also more "wise in his own eyes" than ever before! I've been reading that section in On Becoming Childwise.


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