Sunday, June 15, 2008

You Try Reasoning with a 20 Month Old

Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes by Alfie Kohn

This book was not what I expected; it was much better. Packed with references to actual studies and logical reasoning, I was won over. Punishments and rewards do not help children develop into the considerate, thoughtful, fulfilled people we want them to be. That includes time outs and verbal praise. So, are we eliminating all rewards and punishments on the range?, certainly not in the short run. More on that later.

Dr. Kohn gives lots of reasons why rewards and punishments fail (all with references to actual studies). In fact, he claims he can't find any well-down studies showing their success (other than in short-term situations, most of which showed detrimental effects over the long-term). Of course, I did not do my own review of the research, so I'll take him at his word. I could sum up his reasons, but I didn't take notes and don't want to skim through the whole book again. You'll have to read it yourself. I found this quote to the point:

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.

My sister said something to me this week that struck me along with this quote. She had expectations of her daughter that were not being met and realized recently that she had not yet explained to her daughter what she wanted. The punishments had been useless, but after a brief demonstration, my niece immediately understood what was expected and everyone is happier. Of course, here's also the source of my title. He suggests we talk with our four year old who wakes constantly in the night to discern the reason he keeps awakening. First Son isn't usually coherent enough during the night (certainly not verbally coherent enough) to say anything other than he's having bad dreams. He does pretty well most nights, but I've yet to have any luck at all asking my 20 month old daughter why she wakes and cries for hours on ends some nights. So we're left to our own devices and the scientific method - try something for a week or so and see if it makes a difference. In the meantime, at least he supports our decisions to (most of the time) "reward" her behavior by going to her crib and attempting to soothe her rather than just letting her cry.

The verbal praise is the one that's the hardest to stop. I find myself always complimenting my son when he shares or is helpful around the house. It's probably the most difficult habit to break. Dr. Kohn proposes a number of reasons why this kind of praise isn't producing the result I'm seeking (a 15 year old son who will help his sister with her report while he does the dishes for me without a request). Mainly, we don't want to convince our kids they should be good only when someone is watching and may praise them. We want them to consider the needs and desires of those around them and serve as Christ would. So how do we teach that?

It may feel at first as if we are withholding praise and therefore being stingy with our approval. What matters, though, is whether our responses are offered in such a way as to communicate warmth and concern. If so, children will be encouraged rather than frustrated by what we say.

I've been experimenting with this a little by commenting on what happened like "Your sister is very happy sharing your killer whale. Now you can be the fish. Run away!" (Yes, actual example of a common occurrence on the range.) I'm not sure this is exactly what he's suggesting. I'm trying to focus my son's attention on his sister's feelings and the fun they can have together rather than my pleasure at seeing him share a much-loved toy.

Dr. Kohn is not suggesting we stop giving hugs or kisses. He's just reminding us we need to show our love all the time, regardless of behavior.

What they [children] need is unconditional approval and acceptance--the very opposite of verbal rewards, and especially of Tough Praise.

We all know rewards work in the short-term. If I threaten my son with a time-out, he always immediately does whatever I want. (I doubt this tactic will work as well with my daughter so it's good I'm expanding my skill base.)

[W]e need to be aware of the costs of these quick fixes: rather than rationalizing them as being in the child's best interest, we ought to face the fact that behavioral manipulation is ultimately detrimental. Let us be honest when we reward or punish by asking ourselves for whom we are doing it (them or us?) and for what (the development of good values or mere obedience?).

The quote above is within the context of a passage where Dr. Kohn is admitting we're all going to keep using rewards and punishments to some extent. There are times when parents are tired or occupied and we jump to the fastest method. He's not condoning it, but here he's asking us to avoid justifying it by saying it's for the child. It's not. It's so we can get dinner on the table at a reasonable time when there are twenty other things to do and the kids are not helping (in a variety of ways).

There are a few chapters that deal specifically with the workplace (which was fascinating as an employee), education (specifically in schools) and at home. I was interested in the education ones because we plan to homeschool. (The author would be pleased at the ability to avoid grades for anything; which also aligns nicely with Charlotte Mason's methods. I think they'd get along well.)

The job of educators is neither to make students motivated nor to sit passively; it is to set up the conditions that make learning possible. The challenge, as two psychologists put it, is n to wait "until an individual is interested...[but to offer. a stimulating environment that can be perceived by students as [presenting] vivid and valued options which can lead to successful learning and performance." (words within the quote added by the author)

Motivation comes from within and the author argues convincingly that rewards only decrease internal motivation. There were relatively few actual strategies he could suggest, just generalities (for educators and parents), which makes this book a bit more difficult as a parenting aid than otherwise. It requires us to address each child and situation individually. We all know that's probably the best way to handle situations...but also the most difficult! (Dr. Kohn admits he had little to offer in this area because his very premise requires different approaches, depending on the reasons for a child's behavior.)

In my view, there are two fundamentally different ways one can respond to a child who does something wrong. One is to impose a punitive consequence. Another is to see the situation as a "teachable moment," an opportunity to educate or to solve a problem together. The response here is not "You've misbehaved; now here's what I'm going to do to you" but "Something has gone wrong; what can we do about it?"

I think this will be great...when the kids are older. (In fact, it reminded me of another insightful book I read years ago that taught me tactics I've used all the time, not just with kids.) It can be very difficult to convince a four year old that he must wear clothes (rather than pajamas) to go to the zoo. As far as he's concerned, he's clothed! First Daughter doesn't want to take the time to change her diaper when she's not dirty. She's satisfied; why aren't we? (How to you explain to a 20 month old the physics of a very wet diaper attempting to contain a dirty mess?)I still think I could do more to explain to my kids why we're doing something when they are balking. I just may do the explaining while I physically carry First Daughter to the changing table. (I carry First Son less, but he's more likely to eventually concede the point.)

Good parenting is not defined by which decision one makes in each instance so much as by the willingness to thing about these decisions--as opposed to the tendency to say no habitually and to demand mindless obedience to mindless restrictions.

I liked this last quote the best. It's a reminder to myself that I can consider the research in this book and attempt to apply it to life with my kids without feeling like I need to be having philosophical discussions every five minutes on the reasons we brush teeth. If I can't convince them, they're going to brush their teeth anyway because I am the parent and I really do know best!

Dr. Kohn doesn't seem thrilled with the thought that parents are trying to stay in control, but he hasn't convinced me entirely that we shouldn't be in control as parents. In general, I think we'll try to avoid rewards and punishments (away with that sticker chart that's been half-filled on our fridge for five months) but in the end we'll find a balance.


  1. I've been thinking about this all day and I'm sorry, I just can't get on board. I lavish praise on my son because I absolutely adore him. I could more easily stop breathing. But, my own failings aside, I can't help thinking that the problems of the world (at least that I've seen, especially living in Birmingham) in my opinion stem from children not being praised and loved and valued enough. I'll admit, I'm usually a sucker for well cited books with actual data sets to substantiate hypotheses, but this one seems too contrary to my experience.

  2. Then again, I should probably confess that my 11-month-old thinks that the word "no" is a riot and I live in fear of electrical, I'm not claiming to be an expert on anything.

  3. All kids should be loved unconditionally. One of the problems with praise is that it can give children the impression they are loved because of how they behave. And then when they behave badly, they are afraid they are not loved. Similarly, with punishments, rather than viewing it as a corrective action because of their behavior, they attribute it to their very character and can feel you love them less.

    First Daughter also thinks "no" is a funny word. She often runs around the house yelling her name followed by "No!" over and over again. I admit it; that's what she hears constantly. She's always doing something she shouldn't!!

  4. Have you checked out the book, "No, David!" I love it. FD would probably enjoy it too!


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