||Rewards and Praise: The Poisoned Carrot
by Robin Grille
|We give our children ice-cream if they're "good",
chocolate if they're quiet, little gold stars if they eat their greens, maybe even money
if they get good marks at school. We praise them with a "good boy!" or
"good girl!" if they do something that pleases us. For the modern and discerning
parent, the hitting-and-shaming method of "discipline" is passť. Punishment is
out, and rewards are in. Why use the stick, when we can better teach a child by using a
The New Age hype about praising and rewarding children for what we call
"good" behavior has gained massive popularity. "Find something good your
child has done, and praise them for it!" say the nouveau "how-to" books and
seminars. Psychologists all over recommend the "star-chart" treatment to modify
your child's behavior. This trend is the offspring of a particular school of psychology -
the "behaviorists" - whose thinking currently dominates much of mainstream
psychological and educational theory.
||In fact, these days praising or rewarding your kids' "good" behavior is so
customary that almost nobody - until recently - has thought to question its validity.
Praising or rewarding kids is just plain common sense, and good parenting - isn't
it?. Who would doubt that it's good to give children praise, or prizes when they perform
to our liking?
The praise-and-reward method is definitely hunky-dory, since it is backed by a ton of
evidence from the most methodical and ingenious research that money can buy. Actually, it
springs from the work of psychologists who painstakingly discovered that they could train
rats to run mazes, pigeons to peck at colored buttons, and dogs to salivate at the sound
of the dinner bell - by giving them a controlled schedule of rewards. Psychologists soon
became titillated about the idea of controlling human beings, by applying to us the same
principles that worked on animals. Imagine their excitement when they realized that
rewards work exactly the same on humans as on rats, pigeons and dogs. Modern psychological
know-how has enabled us to manipulate children's behavior, thoughts and emotions in the
same way as we can teach a seal, with a few sardines and a little flattery, to balance a
ball on its nose.
|One problem, though. We don't particularly care about the
quality of relationship we develop with a lab-rat. We are not concerned with rodents'
developing self-esteem, their sense of autonomy or independence, nor do we give a hoot
whether the rat will get interested in trying bigger and better mazes of it's own accord,
long after we stop rewarding it with little food pellets. And that, as most of our experts
have failed to tell us, is where the whole fancy technology of "reward, praise and
reinforce" falls to pieces.
Over and over we have been taught that we should praise and reward our children a lot
more. What could be wrong with that? On the surface, praise looks marvelous - the
key to successful children! Scratch this surface, however, and the results look very
But, rewards improve children's behavior and performance, don't they?
Or so we thought. However, when the little gold stars or jelly-beans stop coming, the
behavior we were trying to reinforce tends to peter out. Children that have grown used to
expecting praise, can feel crushed when it doesn't come. This dampens their perseverance.
There is plenty of evidence that in the long term, reward systems are ineffective.
|Contrary to popular myth, there are many studies showing that when children expect or
anticipate rewards, they perform more poorly. One study found that students'
performance was undermined when offered money for better marks. A number of American and
Israeli studies show that reward systems suppress students' creativity, and generally
impoverish the quality of their work. Rewards can kill creativity, because they discourage
risk-taking. When children are hooked on getting a reward, they tend to avoid challenges,
to "play it safe". They prefer to do the minimum required to get that prize.
Here is a good illustration of why we made the mistake of believing in rewards, based
on benefits that appear on the surface. When an American fast-food company offered
food prizes to children for every book they read, reading rates soared. This certainly
looked encouraging - at first glance. On closer inspection, however, it was demonstrated
that the children were selecting shorter books, and that their comprehension test-scores
plummeted. They were reading for junk-food, rather than for the intrinsic enjoyment of
reading. Meanwhile, reading outside school (the unrewarded situation) dropped off. There
are many more studies showing that, while rewards may well increase activity, they smother
enthusiasm and kill passion. Individuals anticipating rewards lose interest in activities
that were otherwise attractive. It seems that the more we want the reward, the more we
come to dislike what we have to do to get it. The activity required of us stands in the
way of our coveted prize. It would have been smarter to just give the kids more
interesting books, as there is plenty of evidence that intrinsically enjoyable activity is
the best motivator and performance enhancer.
|Can rewards and praise harm our relationship with our
You wouldn't think that the positive things you say to your child about himself or
herself can be as destructive as negative labels. But there are times when this is true.
Thanks to modern advances in behavioral science, our ability to seduce or manipulate
children (and animals! and grown-ups!) to do what we want them to has become increasingly
sophisticated. But the cost of manipulating through rewards has been great. Below are ten
ways in which praise and rewards can damage our relationship with our children.
- Rewards and praise condition children to seek approval; they end up doing things to
impress, instead of doing things for themselves. This can hold back the development of
self-motivation and makes them dependent on outside opinion. When children get used to
getting goodies for "performing", they become pleasers, over-reliant on
positive strokes. Rewards and praise can create a kind of addictive behavior: children
can get addicted to recognition, and thus lose touch with the simple joy of doing what
they love. So many of us are addicted to prestige: we get depressed when admiration
fails to come. Instead of doing what we do for its own sake, we fish for flattery or
reassurance, and when the applause dies away, we sink into despair. Giving rewards or
praise can be habit-forming. This is because the more rewards we use, the more we have
to use them to keep children motivated. Praise cannot create a personal commitment to
"good" behavior or performance. It only creates a commitment to seeking
- One of the worst things we can do is to praise a child's potential. Acclamations
like "I just know you can do it", "You're getting better!",
"I know you've got it in you!", "You'll get there!" sound
supportive on the surface. But these compliments are loaded with our expectation that
the child must improve in some way. It tells the child there is a target to keep
reaching for in order to get the full "bravo!". Praising children's
potential does not help them to like themselves for who they already are, and can make
them feel disappointed with themselves. Underneath the praise is the silent
implication: "you're not good enough yet". This seduces children to work
harder to impress us, at the expense of their own self-esteem. As psychologist Louise
Porter says: "If you want children to develop a healthy self-esteem, stop
praising them" (see reading list below).
- Rewarding children's compliance is the flip-side of punishing their disobedience. It
is seduction in the place of tyranny. Many studies show that parents who use more
rewards also use more punishment, they are more likely to be autocratic. Praise is the
sweet side of authoritarian parenting. It reduces the relationship to one of
controller and controlled. That is why the more astute - or less gullible! - children
feel something "icky" in praise; it makes them feel condescended to. Praise
is a reminder that the praiser has power over them. It diminishes the child's sense of
autonomy, and, like a little pat on the head, it keeps them small.
- Meanwhile, the rewarder is like an assessor, judging what merits praise and what
doesn't. This makes them somewhat scary to the child. The use of praise or rewards
does not make children feel supported. It makes them feel evaluated and judged. Though
"Good boy!" or "Good girl!" is a positive judgment, it is still a
judgment from on high, and ultimately it alienates the child.
- The more insightful children can see right through manipulation. They are onto us,
they think our praise is calculating, and they are not easily outwitted by seductive
tactics. In particular, when praise is a technique we have learned from a book or a
seminar, it is likely to come across as false and contrived. Praise and rewards, like
flattery, can stink of our efforts to control, and lose our child's respect.
- Children, just like adults, naturally recoil from being controlled. We all want to
grow toward self-determination. Praise can therefore create resistance, since it
impinges on a child's developing sense of autonomy.
- Rewards punish, because the child is denied the reward, praise or approval unless he
or she "comes up with the goods". Moreover, the child who is used to being
praised begins to feel inadequate if the praise doesn't come. Nothing feels more
defeating to a child than to miss out on a reward that he or she had been conditioned
to expect. Inside every carrot, there is a stick.
- When children are bribed with rewards for "good" behavior, they soon learn
how to manipulate us by acting the part that is expected of them. They wise up to what
it takes to get the goodies from us: the approval, the ice-cream, whatever. They
become superficially compliant, doing whatever it takes to flatter or impress us, and
honesty suffers. After all, who wants to be honest or real with a person who is
evaluating them? Once relating is reduced to mutual manipulation rather than
authenticity, this sets the stage for manipulative and dishonest relationships later
in life. Manipulation erodes the functions of mutual trust, vulnerability and
transparency, which are vital to healthy intimate relationships.
As a result of early manipulation, we grow up trying hard to please, or we learn to
use our wiles to impress, in order to get the goodies - at the expense of being our
natural selves. We develop a phony or false self that distorts our relationships with
- Among siblings, or in the classroom, reward systems create competition, jealousy,
envy, and mistrust. Rewards or prizes for "good" performance are a threat to
co-operation or collaboration.
- Praise can make children feel robbed. If we are hungry for admiration ourselves, we
can sometimes err by deriving it through our children's triumphs. We use them to make
up for our own wounded self-esteem or pride. If we are praising them because they have
made us feel good about ourselves, they sense this. This takes away from their good
feelings about themselves; our praise can act as rain on their picnic. Some children
refuse to produce what they are naturally good at, because they are repulsed by their
||Why are praising and rewarding so popular?
Rewards are an easy way out, easier than trying to understand why a child is, as many
like to glibly call it, "misbehaving". For example, why bother to find out why a
child refuses to go to sleep at our convenience, (is he afraid? is she feeling lonely? is
he still hungry? etc.) if we can simply reward him or her with a trinket for going to bed
on time? It feels easier to fudge over the underlying problem by using a bribe. This gives
the child the clear message that we are not interested in how he or she feels. Worse
still, we risk overlooking a serious emotional problem. Rewards and praise can be a
gimmicky quick-fix that ignores the child as a whole person.
|Rewards work well for getting children to do something that
they don't naturally want to do, for the short-term only. This immediate behavior change
rewards us, and keeps us addicted to rewarding. The negative consequences of rewards and
praise don't materialize until later, so we fail to recognize rewards and praise as the
But children do need acknowledgment, and positive feedback. What can we do instead of
Often we want to express our delight and appreciation for our children; who they are as
individuals, and the amazing things they do. Appreciation is different from praise because
it is not manipulative. Manipulative praise, as opposed to spontaneous expressions of
appreciation or acknowledgment, is loaded with the covert expectation that the child do
the praiseworthy act again. Most children can sense this; they can feel the difference
between genuine acknowledgment, and a deliberate strategy to reinforce their behavior. So,
how do we give our children positive feedback?
Avoiding praise or rewards does not mean holding back the love and delight we feel for
our children, nor our instinctual desire to encourage them - far from it! It is perfectly
possible to join in with our children and celebrate every step of their unfolding, without
being manipulative. Here's a few suggestions for how to acknowledge and encourage your
children to your heart's content - and theirs - while avoiding the use of praise.
Instead of lavishing children with congratulations, it's better if they focus
internally on the pleasure they derive from accomplishment. Children are naturally
thirsty to achieve, learn and conquer. They are born with an insatiable zest for
mastery, and each new attainment fills them with delight. It is this self-enjoyment
which provides the greatest fuel for perseverance and further learning. When you see
your child do something new, it can be wonderfully encouraging and supportive to say:
"you look like you enjoyed that!", or: how did it feel to do that?".
"I'm glad you did that, you look happy with yourself!".
Focus the child on his/her own pleasure at achieving.
Help him/her to self-evaluate.
Whenever possible, it is a good idea to ask your child about their own
self-evaluation. For instance: "how do you like your drawing?", "are
you happy with how that piece fits into the puzzle?".
Ask them about their inner experiences.
Say, for instance, your child reads you a story he just composed. After sharing how
the story made you feel, you could ask: "How do you feel about the story you
wrote?", "How did it feel to write it?", "Did you enjoy telling
it?", "How did you come up with those ideas for your story?". There are few
things so nourishing to your child's self-esteem, and so enriching to your relationship
with him, than your interest in his inner world of feeling and imagination.
Use "I" statements, instead of labeling the child.
Your appreciation touches your child more deeply when it is expressed in terms of your
feelings. For instance: "I like the colors you chose!", or "I love how you
sang that song!" - instead of: "what a good drawer you are!", or "gee
you're a good singer". Avoid labeling statements like: "Good boy for sharing
your toys!". Say instead: "thanks for sharing with your friend, that felt good
to him - and to me". Focus on your feelings, not on a moral or quality-oriented
label. An "I" statement keeps you from holding a position of power over your
child. It creates an honest and fulfilling connection between you while not interfering
with their experience of themselves.
Comment on the behavior, not on the person.
Feedback and acknowledgment are definitely important. Imagine your child has just
played you a new piece she has learned on the piano. Instead of saying: "What a good
player you are!", you could tell her how much you enjoyed the piece. Better still, be
specific. Tell her what in particular you liked about her playing (e.g. the passion or
emotion, the beautiful melody, how carefully she played, her sense of rhythm, etc.)
How do we know when our positive comments are manipulative?
Ultimately, the problem is not about the perfect choice of words, or how much or when
to make positive comments. When you do the right thing for the wrong reasons, it ends up
being the wrong thing. Since the problem is one of intent, there is no other way but to
become good examiners of our own motives. This takes practice, and the courage and
humility to look within. When giving a positive comment, are you trying to seduce the
child into pleasing you again, into making Mama or Papa proud? Or are you genuinely glad
to see the child accomplish something that pleases him, or genuinely delighting in her
being? Therein lies a paradox: that which is not intended to reinforce, but merely to
"connect", is the most reinforcing.
Is praise ever OK?
There is no need to muzzle ourselves, praise is wonderful when it is not used
manipulatively. For instance, rewards should not be promised in advance, nor guaranteed
every time the child does something you like. Positive feedback is best for your
relationship with your child when it is offered spontaneously, when it springs from your
heart, and not as a deliberate ploy to get more of what you want from the child.
Praising and rewarding are deeply ingrained habits, particularly as that's how most of
us were raised and educated. It may take practice to replace them with appreciation and
acknowledgment, but the latter feels more fulfilling, and can bring you and your child
Children can certainly be made to do what they don't want or love, by offering them
approval, praise or other rewards. But this does not make them happy. Happiness can only
be derived from doing what is intrinsically rewarding to us, and this does not require
others' applause. Do we want kids to become reward-addicts, crowd-pleasers, and
recognition-seekers, or do we want them to be self-motivated, faithful to themselves,
following their own interests? If the latter is true, then the way is not to praise them
but to appreciate them. At school, when the work is made intrinsically interesting,
enjoyable, meaningful and relevant, this works better than reward systems to improve both
the quality and the commitment to the work.
Children are born with an enormous desire to learn. They also have an innate capacity
for honesty, empathy and considerateness. These qualities come forward as a result of our
guidance, our role-modeling, and our appreciation. Rewards and praise for "good
behavior" or "good performance" simply get in the way.
Kohn, Alfie. Punished
by Rewards - The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and other Bribes.
New York: Mariner Books, 1999.
Kohn, Alfie (1996) Beyond Discipline - From Compliance to Community, NewYork:
Prentice Hall, 2000.
Porter, Louise (2001) Children Are People Too: A parent's guide to young children's behaviour.
Lonsdale, S. Aust. : Small Poppies SA, 2001.
See also: Praising our Children: Manipulation or Celebration?
by Jan Hunt
|Excerpted from forthcoming book Parenting for a Peaceful World, which
will be available in our Fundraising Shop this summer.
Robin Grille is a Sydney-based psychologist. He has a private practice in individual
psychotherapy and relationship counseling. For further information and
articles, visit Robin's website our-emotional-health.com
and blog hearttoheartparenting.org.
Robin Grille's book Parenting for a Peaceful World (Longueville Media, 2005) is available
from Amazon for North American buyers. Buyers from other countries can order the book from Robin's website.
Reprinted with permission of the author.
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