by Jessica Westfall
I have always been drawn to the behaviorist approach. The ability to support good behavior and ignore or punish bad behavior and get desired results sits well with me. However, I have been reading Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn, and he fights all my comfortable ideas.
He asserts that rewards and punishments are essentially the same thing, they both are about control. A parent that believes her child will not be kind without a “Good job!” or candy is not much different than a parent who believes her child will not learn in school without threat of punishment. In both cases the parent is trying to control the child’s actions and make them what he or she desires. There’s also the subtle belief that children must be forced to be good or to learn or to do any manner of things society deems appropriate.
The idea of control was a new one for me. It’s just what has always been done. In school, in my family, this is just the way it’s supposed to go. And it works (I thought), especially with my college education that dabbled in behaviorism. I was a pro! However, I have begun to look at why I do what I do as a parent. Often I tell my child to be quiet because I’m worried what others will think. I threaten or bribe according to what will look good, not necessarily what will be good for her. I’m learning to let go of those concerns and focus on her upbringing. It doesn’t matter what others, especially strangers, think. I know where my child is and what is appropriate. I think most reasonable people would agree with my methods if they had the same knowledge of our situation like I do. Conversely, I’ve started giving others the benefit of the doubt, I don’t know their entire situation.
The other issue with rewards/punishments is that they just aren’t effective. Well…they are effective at tasks that take little thought, but they kill creative thinking. This is because the focus is put on the reward/punishment and fear sets in. One who has been dangled a carrot, or threatened by a stick, isn’t interested in taking the risks that creative ideas require. It also causes a person to shy away from collaborating (might lose the bonus if you ask your boss for help) or taking on hard tasks (only easy tasks guarantee success). You’ll have to read the book (or do a Google search) to find out the research behind it, I want to focus on what to do instead. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to teach my child to lack creativity, support rivalry, or promote laziness.
Chapter 6 discusses the problems with praise as a reward. Certainly it is seen as more acceptable than payouts, like candy, toys, or money. However, it still carries the same negative aspects if it’s contrived and controlling.
Here are 4 suggestions from the book for keeping praise ‘real’, and not destructive:
Don’t praise people, only what people do. – By focusing on the actions the receiver of praise won’t create global labels of self, i.e. “I’m smart” verse “I worked hard and learned”.
Make praise as specific as possible. – Focusing our praise to specific aspects direct the focus to those aspects and allows the child to create their own decisions about the appropriateness of the praise. Examples include “The ending of your story was neat because….”, “The dog in your painting looks especially creative because…”, or “I love how you saw that Timmy was hurt and gave him a hug”.
Avoid phony praise. – Be genuine in your praise, don’t hold back when you feel it. Likewise, don’t pretend when you don’t feel it. Children can tell the difference by at least 4 years old, maybe sooner. This method ensures children our enthusiasm is for them, not to control their behavior.
Avoid praise that sets up competition. – Don’t compare when giving praise, “you’re the best in the world” or “look how quiet Jennifer is”. Comparison leads to competition which leads to a loss in intrinsic motivation and encourages rivalry over cooperation.
I have done a lot of self reflection lately, it is hard not to praise my daughter…all the time. I’m not a heartless mom and it’s not just about control. She is this wonderful little miracle that I love, just about everything she does makes me want to celebrate. However, I’ve cut back, I keep at least 50% of my praise in my head and I’ve traded my “Good jobs!” for “Tell me more!”.
As for the control thing, I’ve found that she is going to enjoy what she does if I don’t say anything anyway. She definitely enjoys my interest in her achievements more than my praise. As I let go of my idea of what she should be, who she is has come forth and I’ve been sorely underestimating her! I’ve learned to trust her more, to trust humanity more. We want to learn and be kind and have good lives. It’s up to me as a parent not to dampen her innate, natural, wonderfully human strengths.