I’ve never said the words “good job” to my toddler. I was lucky – I stumbled on Alfie Kohn’s book Punished by Rewards early enough that I was able to break the habit before my daughter had really done anything much that might be construed as requiring a “good job.”
I’m going to be absolutely transparent here and say that this episode draws very heavily on Alfie Kohn’s book Punished by Rewards, which – along with one of his other books, Unconditional Parenting, are a cornerstone of my approach to parenting. If you have time, you should absolutely buy the book and read it yourself. But assuming you don’t have the time for 300 pages of (really, very good) writing plus a hundred more of notes and references to explain why both physical and verbal rewards are just as harmful to your children as punishing them, this episode will help you to get to the crux of the issue much faster. I’ll also get into the research that Kohn draws on, as well as relevant research that’s been published since the book came out in 1993.
Kohn’s thesis is that saying “good job” is really no different than punishing your child, since rewards are essentially the same thing – stimuli designed to elicit a response. He argues that while this approach is actually quite effective in the short term, not only is it not effective in the long term but it doesn’t mesh well with the kinds of relationships that many of us think or say we want to have with our children.
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Hello, and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. Today’s episode is called “Do you punish your child with rewards?”
I’ve never said the words “good job” to my toddler. I was lucky – I stumbled on Alfie Kohn’s book Punished by Rewards early enough that I was able to break the habit before my daughter had really done anything much that might be construed as requiring a “good job.” But she started at a fairly high-quality (as far as I can tell) daycare a couple of weeks back and even though it seems like she’s been home for half of that time with hand, foot and mouth and earache she was playing with her Lego by herself over the weekend when all of a sudden she said to herself “Good job, Carys.” The director of her daycare assures me that the teachers don’t say “good job” to the children and that she has probably picked it up from another parent or child in the room. I know that it’s my interactions with her that will have a far greater impact on her than her interactions with her teachers, but the incident reminded me that not everyone thinks about this in the same way that I do. So I want to take this opportunity to look at the research on how rewards may not be the foundation for the kind of relationship we want to build with our children.
I’m going to be absolutely transparent here and say that this episode draws very heavily on Alfie Kohn’s book Punished by Rewards, which – along with one of his other books, Unconditional Parenting, are a cornerstone of my approach to parenting. If you have time, you should absolutely buy the book and read it yourself. But assuming you don’t have the time for 300 pages of (really, very good) writing plus a hundred more of notes and references, this episode will help you to get to the crux of the issue as it relates to your children. I’ll also get into the research that Kohn draws on, as well as relevant research that’s been published since the book came out in 1993. I should say as a side note that Kohn spends quite a few words on how rewards are detrimental in a workplace environment as well and I’m going to ignore that here, so if that interests you then you should definitely go and buy the book.
Now I’d like you to close your eyes for a minute (as long as you’re not driving or operating heavy machinery) and think of some words that describe the kind of relationship you want to have with your children. Go ahead; think for a few seconds and then I’ll tell you my words.
There are really only three words that I use to describe both my relationship with my daughter now and the one I hope we continue to have as she gets older. The first two are “unconditional love” and the third is “respect.” I believe that love is a necessary but insufficient ingredient in a parent-child relationship. And respect is the missing part of that.
Did you use similar words or concepts? Or did you use words and phrases like “conditional love” and “coersion” and “control”?
If your words were more like mine than like the others, even if they weren’t exactly the same as mine, then my thesis statement to you is that if you use the phrase “good job” when you talk to your child, then you’re aiming to create one type of relationship with your child but using tools that are more likely to create an entirely different kind of relationship.
Now I don’t want to come off all ‘preachy’ here. I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m some kind of parenting know-it-all. I’m not. I just got lucky enough to read a really good book early enough in my daughter’s life for it to really make a difference for our relationship, and I want to share what I learned with you.
So, here we go. Why do we say “good job?” At this point it really seems to be a sort of cultural verbal tic. It seems like the vast majority of parents in the U.S. say “good job” to their children several if not many times a day. On the face of it we probably think we’re encouraging our children and helping them to develop skills. But what if we dig a little deeper? What are we trying to achieve with praise? If you think about it, it’s a classic behaviorist approach. The central idea in behaviorism is that we as humans don’t make choices; we just respond to stimuli. Rewards act as a positive stimulus and punishment is a negative stimulus, so we’ll do more of an action in response to a reward and less of an action in response to punishment. If you do say “good job” to your child, think about some of the reasons that cause you to say it. Are any of them situations when you’re trying to mold your child’s behavior? Do you ever say “good job sharing!” or “good job putting your toys away!” or “good job listening!”? If so, you’re trying to control your child’s behavior using rewards. Alfie Kohn’s central thesis is that this really is *no different* than using punishment to control your child’s behavior since rewards and punishment are essentially the same thing – stimuli designed to elicit a response. He argues that while this approach is actually quite effective in the short term, not only is it not effective in the long term but it doesn’t mesh well with the kinds of relationships that many of us think or say we want to have with our children.
First, let’s examine whether rewards are effective. Say you want your child to clean his room and you offer M&Ms in exchange. Will he clean his room? Probably! The reward worked! But what happens when you run out of M&Ms? Most of the behaviors we try to reward are behaviors we want the child to keep doing in the long-term. And what happens when the rewards run out? The behavior stops. The child is no longer interested in cleaning his room. Alfie Kohn cited research to support his point and a variety of more recent research rewarding everything from weight loss in adults to rewarding children for eating an undesirable food in exchange for a desirable food has no long-term efficacy at changing the target behavior (and it shouldn’t be a surprise to you if you listened to the episode 7, which was called “Help! My toddler won’t eat vegetables” that using ice cream as a reward for eating broccoli actually serves to increase the child’s dislike of broccoli). Kohn summarizes the research using a fabulous quote from a 1977 paper by John Condry of Cornell University, and I’ll quote a bit more than Kohn does:
“All in all, the evidence described [in Condry’s paper] suggests that task-extrinsic rewards (by which he means arbitrary rewards that are the opposite of a task-intrinsic reward, which is a task that produces a reward just by virtue of completing it), when they are used to motivate activity, particularly learning, have widespread and possibly undesirable effects. These extend to effects on the process, as well as the products, of the task activity and to the willingness of the subject to undertake the task at a later date. It is difficult to summarize this material adequately, but in general, compared to non-reward subjects, subjects offered a task-extrinsic incentive choose easier tasks, are less efficient in using the information available to solve novel problems, and tend to be answer-oriented and more illogical in their problem-solving strategies. They seem to work harder and produce more activity, but the activity is of a lower quality, contains more errors, and is more stereotyped and less creative than the work of comparable nonrewarded subjects working on the same problems. Finally…subjects are less likely to return to a task they at one time considered interesting after being rewarded to do it. The facts appear true of a wide range of subjects doing a wide range of tasks. Attempting to account for them all is a formidable challenge.”
It’s hard to top the completeness of that quote, so I’ll only say that more recent research supports this point as well. One study found that even though parents think that rewards are a good way to motivate children, in fact parent’s providing task-extrinsic rewards results in lower levels of intrinsic motivation to complete academic studies.
Now because I neither want to blindly follow one path without considering all the others nor blindly lead *you* down one path without considering the others I will say that when I searched the literature for “the effect of task-extrinsic rewards on children” several studies did pop up which found that people can be more creative if they are rewarded, both in terms of the amount of creative ideas they have and the quality of those ideas. But a study that reviewed both sides of the literature summarized the findings nicely: “What appears to be important is not so much whether people are working for a reward, but rather the degree to which these rewards (and other extrinsic motivators) make people feel controlled by external factors – when this is the case, intrinsic motivation, and in turn, creative performance, indeed suffer. So when people are rewarded for creative performance, this stimulates creative performance. When people are rewarded for “performance” or simply for doing a task, however, creativity is not stimulated and is even likely to be inhibited.” So I guess the question to ask yourself is how much of the time you’re offering rewards to your child you’re doing it to stimulate creative behavior. If the answer is “most of the time” then perhaps you’re on the right track. (And, to be clear, when I think about the times I’ve heard parents saying “good job” there’s usually no element of creativity involved in whatever the child was just doing.) But if you’re mostly using rewards to try to increase intrinsic motivation or to increase compliance with your wishes or to increase your child’s liking for broccoli or basically anything other than increasing creativity, then perhaps not so much.
Alfie Kohn tells us four reasons why rewards fail, and I’m going to go through them each individually. His first reason is that “Rewards Punish,” by which he means that rewards and punishment are not opposites, as we’ve been lead to believe, but that they’re actually two sides of the same coin. If you go back to the research I just described on people’s performance decreasing on a task when those people feel controlled by the reward, and we realize that the vast majority of the time we are using rewards to control behavior and not to stimulate creativity, then Kohn argues that “it is likely that the experience will assume a punitive quality over the long run, even though obtaining the reward itself is usually pleasurable.” Rewards also punish because children don’t always receive them. Many parents promise a far-off treat like a visit to the circus on Sunday, and use the threatened withdrawal of that treat to induce compliance from now until Sunday. And what is the withdrawal of the treat, even though it hasn’t been experienced yet? A punishment. It’s the ‘do this, get that’ situation that creates the control of people’s behavior, which is why we tell children about potential rewards beforehand rather than surprising them with the reward after the fact (which, according to research that Kohn fails to cite, is less destructive than rewards people are told about beforehand). We all get demoralized when something we counted on doesn’t come through. Children are no exception, and they – like we – see the deliberate withdrawal of rewards as a punishment.
Kohn’s second reason why rewards fail is because they rupture relationships. Where people who have comparable status try to compete for rewards, it sets up an environment of “if you succeed, I must fail.” Hardly the type of environment that fosters teamwork. The school where I got my first master’s degree refuses to give letter grade assignments for precisely that reason – so no student’s work can be compared to anyone else’s, or graded on a curve – when no student can be “better” than any other, the conditions are set to promote teamwork and cooperation. But what about situations where relationships are not equal? The parent-child relationship is not an equal one, because the parent holds most of the power. The parent probably also wants to create the kind of safe environment where the child feels he can come and ask for help if he needs it, but if the parent is also the doler-outer of rewards, the child won’t be in a collaborative relationship. She will be trying to get the parent to approve of what she’s doing so she can get the reward she was promised, and not only is that kind of relationship detrimental to the sort of risk taking that children need to do to learn and grow, but it’s detrimental to the relationship based on unconditional love that we say we want to have with our children.
The third reason rewards fail is because they ignore reasons. As with all good behaviorist approaches it essentially ignores what’s happening between the ears – or even assumes that nothing is happening between the ears, because people just respond to the stimulus of the reward. The behaviorist says that humans are nothing more than what they do. Change what they do and you’ve dealt with the problem. But if we are willing to say that our children do have something going on between the ears and that there might be reasons why they behave in certain ways, then why do we use an approach that ignores this? Kohn cites a mother who wrote to him to challenge his view on behavioral manipulation who said “If I can’t punish or reward my children, what do I do when my almost three year old wanders out of her room again and again at bedtime?”. Kohn says that Behaviorist A might use consequences to deal with this: “If you’re not back in that bed by the time I count to three, young lady, you won’t be watching television for a week!”. Behaviorist B favors rewards: “if you stay in bed until morning for the next three nights, honey, I’ll buy you that teddy bear you wanted.” The nonbehaviorist wonders why anyone would propose a reward or punishment without seeking to understand why the child is out of bed in the first place. Maybe she is hungry or not tired or just wants to know what’s going on downstairs. This is not to say that the parent needs to cave to the child’s every demand – far from it. But if all we do is offer a reward without understanding the reason why the child is doing what they’re doing, we can’t ever really fix the underlying problem.
The fourth reason rewards fail is that they discourage risk-taking. Kohn’s principle here is that when we are working for a reward, we do exactly what is necessary to get it and no more. Most of us must have had this experience in our school careers – we ask what material will be covered on the test so we can be sure we will study just enough to get the grade we want, and not a moment more. I still see it in myself today – my Masters in Psychology essays are graded, and I tend to cite research that supports my point so I can get the essay done...