Lived experience – the crumbling wall of rewards

Our focus on rewards and punishments can unintentionally hinder a child's autonomy, creativity, and intrinsic motivation

Have you ever had a moment when you questioned some of the fundamental beliefs that underpin your parenting? Welcome to my week! After spending years believing that rewards and positive praise were the best way to motivate my children, a person I respect presented a different view and pointed me to the work of a researcher and author named Alfie Kohn.

Before you read any further I suggest you sit down and open your mind, I certainly had to, but now I feel compelled to share what I have learned. 

Like many parents, we implemented a house points system at home (thanks to Harry Potter for supplying the theme) where the kids had to complete all the steps in daily routines to earn iPad time. In addition to this reward system, I spent a lot of time with both children to develop the skills required to complete the steps in a routine. It’s important to note that prior to introducing rewards, we had already spent months where we just focused on the skills required in every step.

The elaborate point system didn’t last very long, the kids got bored and so did the adults, but I believed that the short strategic stint of rewards cemented the kid’s ability to complete the tasks continuously from beginning to end. Knowing what I know now, I think that the outcome was probably more of a coincidence than necessarily a result of the rewards. The regular practice and mastery of each task was more likely the reason why we can now get through the routines. 

I also have other scaffolding strategies that work a treat, especially on those hard days. Music is big in our household, and there is nothing better than the motivational beat of a song and the auditory cues it provides for keeping kids on track. When all else fails though, I get in there and offer my help, because we all find it difficult to do things on some days.

I digress… let’s get back to the merit of rewards and punishments, a topic that has long been a subject of debate among parents and researchers. Last week I was introduced to the name Alfie Kohn, an influential educational theorist, who challenged traditional methods of motivating children through his research and writings. One of his most famous books is called “Punished By Rewards”. In it, he highlights that while these external motivators may generate short-term compliance, they often fail to ignite a genuine love for learning. 

According to Kohn, our focus on rewards and punishments can unintentionally hinder a child’s autonomy, creativity, and intrinsic motivation. His research process included asking parents what kind of adults they would like their children to grow into. The answers were very similar and included themes around being happy, independent, productive, and kind adults. Kohn then asked the parents to think about how using rewards and punishments to elicit obedience and compliance without arguments would contribute to raising children who would become the adults they imagined. 

As parents, we don’t want to raise people pleasers who don’t question others’ motives and directives, we want to nurture our child’s ability to be an independent thinker. We also want our children to find the intrinsic motivation to do things, because life will not always hold the proverbial carrot in front of them. Apathy is more likely to be an issue if our children don’t get the opportunity to problem solve and find mastery and within that experience failure and success.

At this point, you might be thinking to yourself, “ Hold on a second. I don’t punish my kids. I’m different from those other parents who use timeouts and other punishments”. I put it to you: isn’t the withholding of a reward because your child didn’t meet your expectations, a punishment in itself?

I know this might sound extreme, but even the use of verbal praise to reinforce behaviour can become a reward, conditioning kids to do things to get verbal recognition and acceptance. This also raises the question of whether the regular use of these common practices creates an environment where children begin to believe that their parent’s love is conditional. 

Am I going to change your mind about rewards and punishments? Probably not. We know they work in the moment and sometimes we don’t have time for anything else, but I ask that you sit with some of what I said and think it through.

I’m committed to being more aware of how I use rewards/praise and to making a conscious decision to:

1. involve the kids in decision-making – it gives them a chance to use problem-solving and it makes them feel valued. They may not always have the experience to make the right decisions, but it opens up healthy discussions

2. give kids the responsibility to set goals for themselves – we still need to help them to see the value of meeting those goals, but they will be invested because they have been afforded the autonomy to identify what is important for them

3. give them choices – not just about whether they want the red or blue cup, but more importantly about the process and sequence of things. 

This is where the real opportunity for learning, self-confidence, and intrinsic motivation lie. That wall of rewards and punishments is definitely crumbling in our family.

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