Wednesday, March 2, 2011

"Punished by Rewards" by Alfie Kohn


...the trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A's, praise, and other bribes.



"Like most things that we and the people around us do constantly, the use of rewards has come to seem so natural and inevitable that merely to post the question why are we doing this? can strike us as perplexing--and also, perhaps, a little unsettling" (13-14).

Punishing kids is bad, spanking and time-outs and yelling damage their self-esteem and make them resentful, right? So how do we get them to do what we want them to do? Rewards! It's the magic answer for a parent who wants to be positive! Sticker charts, bonuses to the allowance, penny jars, praise... focus on the positive and they will do those things more, right? After all, the rats in the studies did!

But humans are not rats.

"...our everyday practices rest on an implicit theory of human nature that fails to do us justice. When we repeatedly promise rewards...we are assuming that [the person] could not or would not choose to act this way on their own. If the capacity for responsible action, the natural love of learning, and the desire to do good work are already part of who we are, then the tacit assumption to the contrary can fairly be described as dehumanizing" (26).

This is the second Alfie Kohn book I have read. The other, Unconditional Parenting, I loved and hated at the same time. It challenged much of what I thought about parenting--much of what I thought about human nature--and yet it felt very right. (His books are quite dense and take some time to get through, which I think makes them a little tiring...but it was worth the three library renewals to get through this one!)

I took notes as I read this book,  so rather than try to re-write everything from the book, I'm mostly going to just give you a copy of my notes. ☺

A Few Facts about Rewards (based on scientific studies--which he quotes extensively) 
  • Rewards are effective for getting a dependent being to do something (anyone who is not truly, fully dependent on you will stop responding to the reward)
  • Rewards are effective only for as long as the reward lasts
  • Rewards are effective at inducing compliance in the present (but not at instilling morals or ethics)
  • Rewards damage relationships. Peers compete, lack teamwork, and blame each other for failures. In the relationship between rewarder and rewardee the unequal status is solidified.
  • "Rewards are not actually solutions at all; they are gimmicks, shortcuts, quick fixes that mask problems and ignore reasons. They never look below the surface [to ascertain the cause or source of the behavior, nor solve it]" (60).
  • "When we are working for a reward, we do exactly what is necessary to get it and no more" (63).
  • Rewards diminish motivation, therefore "extrinsic motivators are most dangerous when offered for something we want children to WANT to do" (87).


The most notable aspect of a positive judgment is not that it is positive, but that it is a judgment" (102).I talked about this idea (of judging) in this post. I gave some examples of using neutral responses rather than verbal praise, for example "that's an interesting picture, tell me about it!" instead of "what a beautiful picture!" (Really, no matter how cute he is, my toddler isn't Michelangelo and we all know it.)


"Rewards and punishments are not opposites at all; they are two sides of the same coin. And it is a coin that does not buy very much" (50).

So, what is a better option than rewarding (or punishing)? Kohn shares a gameplan:
1--Begin by evaluating why the child is misbehaving. Did they know/understand what was expected? Were they physically and mentally able to comply? Did they try?
2--Assume that the child had the best motives (that are consistent with the facts). Usually they did.
3--Use the least intrusive method of correction or instruction that is possible.

Use the 3 C's
Content--are you asking for reasonable behaviors? consider the capacity of the child and the relative importance of the issue.
Collaboration--work together with the child(ren) to make household rules, create family expectations, etc.
Choice--(a continuation of 'collaboration), involve the kids. Bobby may have chosen to hit his brother, but he did not choose to be spanked--the parent chose  to attach that specific consequence; so even if Bobby knew about it, he did not choose it. Instead, involve kids in decision about how to resolve things. Teach them autonomy.

  • Be a person. A real person. A nice person. Use 'I' rather than the third person to refer to yourself. (like this!)
  • Model the good behavior. Remember that our actions speak so loudly they cannot hear what we say!
  • Explain why. Every person, no matter their age, has a right to know why they are being asked to do a thing.
  • Assume the best motives.
  • Emphasize perspective taking. Try to understand their side, try to help them learn to understand yours.
  • Do not rig choices when you offer them. (this post details this idea a bit)

In the end, kids need to feel love and positivity withOUT strings attached. They need our love without it being dependent on behavior. In short, they need unconditional love, and we need to be unconditional parents.

2 comments:

Morgan -Ing said...

I loved Unconditional Parenting. It made me uncomfortable at the beginning and rang so true by the end I couldn't deny it. He's right. More people need to read his books. I am not perfect and I do sometimes find that I threaten and reward, but overall, he has changed how I parent.

Janeen said...

This is probably horrible but you know, I can't help thinking how this could be tied in to the Bible. Maybe it's due to the issues I'm having with my husband right now and his beliefs but as I was reading what the author wrote, it really came to mind.

How many Christians focus more on "the law" than on anything else and use that to be judgmental and overbearing. I see many Christians who follow the "rules" only for the "reward" and don't really have much in the way of morals or even a moral character. They learn to do things for the reward and are actually very likely to stray from the church when they don't get that reward.

The explain why part also hits home, so many "rules" are never explained. They are there and are expected to be followed and no one knows why! An example of this is my husband deciding not to shave his beard because the Bible says not to. Well, why? What reason is there for one to NOT shave? It makes no sense to me at all and therefore, it goes back to the whole he's doing it for the reward, he doesn't really know WHY, and it then in effect destroys OUR relationship because he focuses on the rewards he's going to get on not on our relationship, the fact that he did this without talking to me, and that the ends always justify the means even if that means he LIES to me in order to do what he's supposed to do.

Is it any wonder that I have grown very frustrated with organized religion? *sigh*

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