Ask Dr. Mom: Should I Use a Reward System With My Toddler?

Image of a toddler and a parent putting stickers on a reward chart

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Mona Amin, DO is a board-certified general pediatrician, the founder of Peds Doc Talk, and a mother to a toddler, Ryaan. For our Ask Dr. Mom series, Dr. Amin is sharing how she approaches pacifiers and weaning your child off of them as both a doctor and a mom.

A reward system for toddlers works by offering a child a reward or prize in exchange for positive behavior. A common example is a chart with stickers that demonstrates progress and growth. The goal of a reward system is to use positive reinforcement to drive positive behaviors. When a child gets praise for doing something favorable, they are more likely to continue this behavior.

Let’s look at an example: Your toddler is getting out of bed every night to come into your room. A reward system in this situation may be a sticker chart to track the nights your toddler successfully stays in their room. With a reward system, you set the concrete expectation (staying in the room) and what they will get if they follow through (a sticker). Once they've accrued a week of stickers, they can get a “prize,” like a trip to the zoo or museum.

Is There a Downside to Using Reward Systems?

Some might believe that reward systems can become a slippery slope for children, as they may incentivize them to only do an activity because they’re getting something out of it. In doctor speak, this is what we refer to as intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is a child’s desire to do an activity because they genuinely want to, or because they are aware of the task's importance. Extrinsic motivation is when a child completes a task because they will get something out of it, or they might make their caregiver proud.

Additionally, some children might struggle with a sense of failure if they don't achieve their reward by the end of the expected timeframe. People who shy away from reward systems may feel concerned that basic tasks like sleeping or eating might be labeled as "good" or "bad," when many of these activities are just a part of life.

image of a Black parent and child coloring together

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The Doctor Answer

I think it’s important to remember that every child is unique, and every parent should consider all options when weighing what might work for their family. When used correctly, reward systems can be beneficial.

When parents come into my office to troubleshoot their child's behavior, I first ask what they have already tried. If they have tried other discipline strategies with no luck, a reward system may be a good option.

Before implementing a reward system, you might consider a visual chart to demonstrate expected behaviors around routines. This can be helpful for older children who learn visually. For example, your morning routine might consist of getting dressed, eating breakfast, brushing teeth, putting on socks and shoes, and leaving the house. The child can check these tasks off as they complete them, which also adds to a sense of accomplishment without the pressure of a reward.

For all children, remember that positive reinforcement is always better than negative reinforcement. Be specific with praise. Rather than simply saying “good job” for staying in their room overnight, try saying something like, “I see you rested your body and stayed in your room all night. You must feel so ready to play and have fun today!”

With these phrases, you are focusing on what they accomplished, and not centering the behavior around your own reaction. You are letting them know that they achieved something, and acknowledging how good that achievement must feel. By focusing on this, you are allowing them to feel proud of themselves and what they did, and not because of anybody else.

However, a reward system can be useful if you’ve done all of the above and are still running into difficulty. Reward-based approaches can also be helpful in specific skill-building, like potty training.

Did You Know?

Rewards and praise can positively affect a child's self esteem. Toddlers are often faced with the words "no" and "stop" throughout the day, either by parents, other caregivers, or teachers at school. Praise helps build their confidence and allows them to feel proud of their accomplishments.

When Are Reward Systems Encouraged?

I am okay with reward systems for potty training because it is a task-driven activity. We want children to learn to use the bathroom. Once they master this skill, they are not going to constantly look for praise for using the toilet in the long-run. With potty training, is important to remember to focus on positive reinforcement only, and not implement negative consequences for accidents or regressions.

If you do implement a reward system while potty training, try to keep the "prize" small in the moment. If you use sticker charts, you can offer stickers for the week and an exciting activity if they obtain a certain number of stickers. I like to make the “reward” an experience rather than an object, as I want children to be incentivized by non-material things. In the big picture, building memories together matters more than material objects.

image of a parent and child looking at a piece of paper and smiling

Verywell / Photo Illustration by Christian Alzate / Tang Ming Tung

The Mom Answer

In my house, we don’t use reward systems for most things discipline-related. We explain the boundary ahead of time and use positive verbal reinforcement by focusing on what our son has accomplished. For example, when our son was refusing to sleep, we said a temporary good-bye to his toys as we put him down for a nap, explaining that he had to rest so he could have energy to play. When he woke up, we talked about how rested he felt and how he was ready to play again. This put the excitement and accomplishment back on him. I always like to focus on the positive emotions, as I do believe toddlers relate to that.

We also never use reward systems around meal times. I am not one to say things like, “if you eat your peas, you will get a cookie.” This type of approach can inadvertently label foods as "good" or "bad" and lead the child down a road where they look at vegetables as a necessary evil to get to the treats. This is not something I want children to grow up feeling, as when they get older, they may turn to those “reward” foods in times of stress. We want to accept all foods as neutral.

I also wouldn’t recommend reward systems for chores around the house. This is something that is part of family roles and dynamics, and by creating rewards, we take away the intrinsic desire to contribute to one's family and household.

I will, however, consider using a reward system for toilet training when that happens. In my work, I see the benefits of reward systems for potty training without the worry of long-term issues, such as perfectionism or the need for constant external gratification.

The Takeaway

When it comes to reward systems, it's important to know your options so you can make the best decision for your child's temperament and behavior. All children are unique, and as a parent, you know your child best. If you use reward systems, consider implementing them for goal-driven activities such as potty training or keeping your toddler in their bed at night. As always, if you have concerns about your child's behavior, please reach out to their pediatrician or healthcare provider.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University. How to Motivate Children: Science-Based Approaches for Parents, Caregivers, and Teachers.

  2. Sidman M. The distinction between positive and negative reinforcement: Some additional considerationsBehav Analyst. 2006;29(1):135-139. doi:10.1007/BF03392126

  3. Dweck CS. The journey to children’s mindsets-and beyondChild Dev Perspect. 2017;11(2):139-144. doi:10.1111/cdep.12225

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How to Use Rewards.

  5. Jansen PW, Derks IPM, Mou Y, et al. Associations of parents’ use of food as reward with children’s eating behaviour and BMI in a population-based cohort. Pediatric Obesity. 2020;15(11). doi:10.1111/ijpo.12662

By Mona Amin, DO
Dr. Mona Amin is a board-certified pediatrician with five years of experience in private practice. She has written for multiple renowned parenting journals and has been a speaker at multiple conferences. She shares information and education about children's health and wellness, namely how to navigate the first few years to set a healthy parenting foundation for the rest of a child's life.