Have you ever tried to tell a child to ‘Be nice, darling?’ It doesn’t work does it?

From the dawn of time, parents and teachers have been trying to corral kids into showing concern for their fellows. If I could gather all the energy that has been spent on this over the millennia, I could have traveled the universe and swooped back to earth several times without any problem at all.


But it doesn’t work because children are essentially ego-centric. They believe they are the be-all and end-all of the universe. And it is our job as their guides to becoming a grown-up to disabuse them of that notion. Preferably before they get to adulthood. 🙂

To get a child’s attention when we want them to be kind and thoughtful, we have to employ a technique that appears, at first, to be counter-intuitive.

A child’s wage

What a child wants most of all is attention. That is his currency. So when we want her to be thoughtful of others, empathic and kind, we need to give her lots of attention when we see it happening.

And one way to do that successfully, over time, in our busy world is through tokens of our appreciation. Yes, that’s right, we have to pay them.


On taking a school trip to the East Coast this technique was emphatically reinforced for me. I initiated the idea of a ‘conscious act of kindness’ necklace.

Each student received a leather thong and was told that when an adult (one of 13 chaperones on the trip) saw a student performing a conscious act of kindness, the student would receive a bead for her or his necklace. The students rose to the challenge.

Soon, we all saw such things as:

  • Students carrying one another’s luggage.
  • Individuals picking up trash dropped absentmindedly by other students, or even by someone in another group.
  • Cameras, jackets, wallets, and such, were rescued from the bottomless ‘lost and found’ pits in museums and malls.
  • Candies and treats weren’t hoarded but lavishly shared.

You might be thinking that’s not being emotionally intelligent, that’s about being self-centered and in one sense you would be right. Except for the fact that after a while the behavior continues to occur even when the tangible reward isn’t in place.

Cause and effect

Instead, the reward becomes the good feeling that occurs when the kids respond in a kind and thoughtful manner. The child wants to keep feeling that good feeling. We teach that cause and effect relationship through the use of rewards.

On our trip, we found that students reported each other’s positive behaviors instead of complaining about negative ones. In other words, tattling vanished and all in all, over 700 conscious acts of kindness were noted.

It might appear that offering tokens to reward behaviors works universally but, in fact, there are certain things to keep in mind before deciding whether or not to implement a ‘token economy’ and how to do it successfully.

  1. Decide on the behavior you want to see and reward with a tangible token in each instance.
  2. After a certain period of time when the behavior has become consistent, reduce the rewards or give them intermittently,.
  3. Remember that ongoing rewarding of behavior modification reduces critical and creative thinking.
  4. Use behavior modification for instilling behaviors such as sharing, putting up a hand before asking a question or saying ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’ – behaviors we want to be so internalized and ingrained that it becomes automatic even when external rewards are removed.
  5. Know that internal satisfaction is integral to ‘paying’ children to exhibit certain behavior and eventually the value of the feeling takes over.
  6. To be most successful the reward should be paired with a descriptive element – “I do appreciate your effort in putting up your hand to ask a question” so that the two actions are related in the child’s mind.

What do you think? Has this been successful for you? Or perhaps you disagree? What ideas do you have to reward and encourage behavior you want to see in your kids? Please tell us in the comments!

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Anabel Jensen

President of Six Seconds and professor of education, Anabel Jensen, Ph.D., is a master teacher and a pioneer in emotional intelligence education. A two-time Federal Blue Ribbon winner for excellence in education, she was Executive Director of the Nueva School from 1983 to 1997 where she helped develop the Self-Science curriculum featured in Daniel Goleman’s 1995 bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence.