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Rewards and Praise: The Poisoned Carrot

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 passé. Punishment is out, and rewards are in. Why use the stick, when we can better teach a child by using a carrot?

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 different.

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 children?

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.

  1. 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 praise.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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 others.
  9. 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.
  10. 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 parents' gloating.

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 culprit.

But children do need acknowledgment, and positive feedback. What can we do instead of praise them?

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.

Focus the child on his/her own pleasure at achieving.

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!".

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 closer.

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.

Recommended Reading:

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, New York: 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

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 and blog

Excerpted from Robin Grille's book Parenting for a Peaceful World. Reprinted with permission of the author.