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Rewarding You With the Facts: Last Thoughts on the Problem of Rewards

Posted by Jen on July 22, 2009 at 8:35 AM in Jen
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Last Wednesday I wrote about the problem of rewards to mixed reviews from the fans of PBS on Facebook. Some thought my perspective was reasonable--mostly because of personal experience with children in school settings where intrinsic motivation is almost favored by educators looking to cultivate a love of learning. Others thought my take was naive, impractical, and at worst, unfounded in scholarly research. For those readers who wondered if there are any documented grounds for leaving rewards behind, let me offer up these articles, studies and a little clarification.

Extrinsic rewards may help a child (or adult) cultivate interest and follow-through in a new skill, but these kinds of rewards may also damage or diminish the quality of the intrinsic motivation already naturally present. Our lack of faith in a child's built-in motivation to learn something new may cause us to limit our efforts to create environments and circumstances where innate interests can develop and thrive. Read this Stanford University study on undermining children's intrinsic motivation.

Rewards, especially when given in the form of praise, can distance a child from his most valuable resource in achieving success--an understanding of the efficacy of effort.
Rewards and praise place a child's sensor for what's working outside herself--an effective tool if you want a docile child or an obedient employee--but the ability to access, monitor and employ personal effort will develop children who can succeed under pressure AND self-direct in the absence of visible incentives. Read this New York Magazine article highlighting the work of psychologist and researcher Carol Dweck.

Temperament has more impact on the effectiveness of rewards than the incentive itself.
Alfie Kohn (whose ears must be ringing after this week in the comments at Facebook PBS) has well-documented research highlighting the role of rewards in motivating school children and employees. He concludes that responsiveness to rewards is most widely effective with populations that are highly motivated to start. In other words, if the thought of working on commission makes you cringe, all the incentive in the world is less likely to make bring your best effort to the task and help you actually succeed. Read Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn.

And one last word on rewards: Many commenters pointed out that the whole of our society is founded on rewards systems of one kind or another. Teachers issue grades. Employers cut paychecks. Parents dole out m-n-ms and gold stars. While I agree that this is how we've agreed as a nation to move each other forward, I believe real innovation, creativity and cultural shifts happen when there's time and space to discover the deeper motivations for not only what we do but how we want to do it. If we're not willing to build some reward-free zones where our children can experience the value of effort, free-thinking and internal motivation, I'm not convinced we'll be equipped to make the changes that are sure to come as bricks and mortar institutions adapt to an increasingly light and fast digital world.


Jene' writes...

Hi Jen,
I'm currently undecided about whether and how I'll use rewards with my daughter, who is 2, but I wanted to commend you for having made a thoughtful and well-researched choice for your family and for presenting that choice with courage and commitment, yet without a tone of judgment. I've found the dialogue between you and your sister here on the blog really thought-provoking and I appreciate that. Thanks.

Amber writes...

I agree with you completely. But as you point out ditching rewards runs very much counter to the way our society is structured. That alone makes it a big leap for a lot of people. It certainly did for me when I first considered it.

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts so succinctly. You've done a much better job explaining my rationale than I usually do myself.

Sarah writes...

Would still love some practical tips on how to motivate kids to do things they don't want to do WITHOUT rewards. Ideas?

If you don't use stars or M&Ms or praise (which one commenter pointed out is a reward in and of itself), how do you get a kid to clean their room, take teh dog on a walk, etc?

And if rewards are not good motivators for good behavior, are punishments okay motivators for bad behavior?

Amy writes...

While I have an easy time not giving stars, candy, or other "things" or linking behavior to basic acceptance of a person, I have a harder time with verbal praise, or physical expressions of appreciation--hugs, smiles, applause. is it damaging to show appreciation for effort? Is there a difference between recognizing effort and praise? If i say to a child "wow! I can tell how much work you put into that!" or "I love your yellow trees! what a nice surprise!" it seems to me I am affirming their initiative, or their creativity, and that this kind of interaction builds self confidence. The only pitfall I see is if you then compare with another child's effort, but if each child's work is given worth for visible reasons??

Stephen Keane writes...

Consider moderation. You make a compelling argument that there exists such a thing as too much praise, but I think it's self-evident that both external and internal motivators have value. The trick is striking a balance.

Eleanor writes...

Thanks, Jen. All of this has given me so much to think about. I can safely say that the reward stuff has never worked well with my children. We've started various charts throughout the years, usually at times when I've felt desperate for a solution to something. Mostly I think those times have been my attempts to grab control when I have felt out of control as a parent or was hearing that loud "should" in my head as in "your children SHOULD be doing...." The thing that sticks out for me most now as I read your posts and Kris' is that after all these years, at the age of 41, when I've done something I feel good about, it doesn't make me feel better or more proud when one of my parents praises me. In fact it makes me feel bad. Somehow it takes the wind out of my sails. Once they put their stamp of approval on an accomplishment, it's as if that accomplishment had no value before they praised it. Also, the accomplishment seems to become more theirs than mine. I don't want to do that to my kids. So much to think about.

Jess writes...

Amen to giving children reward-free zones in their lives! Far from the traumatic deprivation that people imagine it to be, it really is a gift.

Regarding motivating children to do things: in my own experience, nothing beats modeling the thing you want to see. Over and over and over. If you want a child to learn to be tidy, be tidy yourself. To value reading, let them see you reading. Etc, etc. Working side by side also fosters behaviors you want your children to learn, inviting kids to take part in a way that they enjoy. Also, appreciation needn't take the form of empty praise (which is what Kohn is objecting to, right?). You don't have to say "good job" - you can thank your child for helping you, and tell them how it made your job easier or more pleasant to work with them. You can show them the results of their work: a meal you can enjoy, a clear room ready for more playing or for relaxing, no more stench from the kitchen trash...

I also find that sometimes we need to take a deep breath and accept that it's ok for kids not to learn every single lesson we want them to learn. There are many messy but happy and healthy people out there in the world. Plenty of people who aren't avid readers but do have expertise in other areas.

Susan writes...

This is a must read article, available on Wrightslaw. Although they gear information to those of us with special needs children, certainly viewing each child as one with specific needs is a common sense approach to parenting. Functional Behavioral Assessments & Positive Interventions: What Parents Need to Know by Dixie Jordan. Looking past the obvious into "why" behaviors exist, or don't is key to creative solutions.

Rena32Pollard writes...

Cars and houses are quite expensive and not everyone can buy it. Nevertheless, loan was created to help people in such kind of hard situations.

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