Troubling Rewards

by Marlene Resnick
Article #1 in our series on Parenting
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Marlene Resnick, M.A. is President of Parenting U International, an organization dedicated to helping parents and professionals work with children and families to do the best job possible. She is a parent who has been involved with parent education for over twenty years. You can order her book by clicking the link below:

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Punished By Rewards, a book by Alfie Kohn, raises some startling concerns regarding how parents in particular and adults in general attempt to motivate children.

Citing an enormous number of studies, the author poses the following question: "Do rewards motivate people? Absolutely, they motivate people to get rewards." "Do this and you will get that" makes people focus on the that not the this.

The underlying belief is that this type of motivation or manipulation is a way to control children's behavior and to get children to do the things that we think are good for them. In the short run, we are right. We can often get the behavior that we want if we are willing to offer a reward that is desirable. However, we may need to take a closer look at the results of our motivational efforts in terms of long range effects.

The author questions the model of human relationships founded principally on the idea of one person controlling another. Are rewards as innocuous as they are made out to be?

While punishment is "Do this or else here's what will happen to you," rewards simply control through seduction rather than force or threats. Punished By Rewards states that the real choice for us is not between rewards and punishment, but rather behavioral manipulation on the one hand, and an approach that does not rely on control on the other.

The multitude of studies which are documented in this comprehensive refutation of Skinner's behavioral theory make a strong and convincing argument that extrinsic rewards reduce and undermine intrinsic motivation. Not only were studies performed with young children, but many studies involved teens, and still other studies looked at adult behaviors.

They all come to the same, rather startling conclusion: "The quality of performance in general and of learning in particular tend to decline significantly when people are extrinsically motivated."

An old story is used to demonstrate what seems to be corroborated in all the studies examined. It is the story of an elderly man who endured the insults of a crowd of ten-year-olds each day as they passed his house on their way home from school. One afternoon, after listening to another round of jeers about how stupid and ugly and bald he was, the man came up with a plan. He met the children on his lawn the following Monday and announced that anyone who came back the next day and yelled rude comments about him would receive a dollar. Amazed and excited, they showed up even earlier on Tuesday, hollering epithets for all they were worth. True to his word, the old man ambled out and paid everyone. "Do the same tomorrow," he told them, "and you'll get twenty-five cents for your trouble." The kids thought that was still pretty good and turned out again on Wednesday to taunt him. At the first catcall, he walked over with a roll of quarters and again paid off his hecklers. "From now on," he announced, "I can only give you a penny for doing this." The kids looked at each other in disbelief. "A penny?" they repeated scornfully. "Forget it!" And they never came back again.

Just as this story illustrates, and studies confirm, as soon as the rewards are no longer there, neither is the motivation. When asked his opinion about Pizza Hut's popular Food for Reading program, educational psychologist John Nicholls replied, 'that it would probably produce a lot of fat kids who don't like to read.'

What can we do instead of reward or punish children? Rather than trying to control children's behavior through external threats or promising rewards, we can begin to look at the situation in a broader context.

First, we must realize that each child is an individual. We must take the time to find out what excites a child's interest, offer opportunities to explore, and express and engage the child in subjects that are of interest to him or her. Getting a child involved in problem solving rather than rewards or punishment can excite creativity and engender responsibility. Engaging a child's cooperation and taking time to hear input regarding his or her concerns creates an environment that encourages listening and mutual respect.

When considering children's misbehavior, we need to look at our expectation and what we are demanding. We need to look at their level of development. If we are negotiating with a two-year-old, they will not be able to hold up their part of the bargain later on. It is beyond their developmental capacity. We need some basic understanding of children's development and how they learn.

The most difficult part of parenting is the necessity of looking at our own expectations and our own behavior. If we are not excited about books, how can we expect our children to be? If we are excited about books but don't share that excitement with our children, how can we expect them to be excited about reading?

We are the models from whom children learn how to behave. Family, friends, peers, television, and movies play a role here. We need to model the behavior that we want, but modeling is not enough. We need to ask for the behavior that we would like to see in our children. We need to let kids know that we appreciate their efforts, their cooperation, and their ideas. We need to give them choices between acceptable behaviors.

It is very important that we allow children the feelings that they have and to help them to name and identify their emotions. We also need to set limits firmly and with kindness when children's behavior is out of bounds. We need to show kids that we care. We need to explain things to them when they ask why. This is how children begin to understand how we think, what we believe, and what is important to us. Arno Gruen, in The Betrayal of the Self, says that empathy is the basis of morality. Children begin to understand our values through our actions, and we help them to understand our actions by explaining to them what is important to us and why it is important.

It is also essential to keep things in perspective. Everything does not rise and fall on one interaction. Who your child is becoming rests on more than one argument, one conflict or one problem.

Learning to attribute positive motives to children's behavior becomes a powerful motivator for children. They do what they think will get the result that they want. This is not a bad thing. Our job is ultimately to teach them how to go about getting what they want in a healthy and cooperative way. Rather than explaining children's behavior in terms of sinister motives, help children to develop good values by assuming that they are already motivated by these values. Provide opportunities to care, to help and to cooperate.

Marlene Resnick

President of Parenting U International

For more information on this topic, read PUNISHED BY REWARDS by Alfie Kohn.

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Editors note:

Marlene's segment is an opportunity for parents and professionals to explore issues regarding parenting and the challenges we all face in raising children. This series invites you to network, dialog, and problem solve on a number of topics. We look forward to your participation.

Dr. Stephen J. Bavolek, founder of The Nurturing Programs wrote: "Your book is terrific and is very compatible with the philosophy of nurturing."
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