Why I Don’t Like Rewards and Punishments

Gentle discipline. That sounds pretty progressive, right? Not spanking or hitting children IS still a pretty progressive concept in our society. In my opinion, it’s disheartening that we’re still not collectively as a culture at the place where hitting kids is just accepted as absurd, archaic, and wrong for any reason…

But I digress. This post isn’t about non-gentle discipline. It’s about the ways in which we are moving forward, but in very small, still-misguided ways. Not that I’m the perfect parent, as if there is such a thing–but I am willing to admit that there’s still plenty of room for positive change. I am willing to acknowledge the ways in which we (collectively and personally) are still held back from relating to our kids from a place of love and trust, instead of fear and control.

One of the things–tools, if you will–that parents often turn to, or use more heavily, when they are working toward a more gentle way of relating to their kids, is using rewards and consequences. “Hey, the kids did what I told them to, there was no yelling or hitting (which is spanking, don’t kid yourself), and everything is great!”

Well, yes. But no. There is much more going on with rewards and consequences than just the immediate behavior changes that are effected. For many parents, the question of whether rewards and consequences “work” is rather a moot point. We don’t care whether they “work”, because we are more concerned with the long-term behavioral and psychological consequences of using such techniques.

Incidentally, of course they “work”. Pavlov proved that with doggies in the 1890s–but I deeply question the integrity of behaviorism as a school of thought when applied to human beings–in other words, beings who are intrinsically motivated to think critically and to make decisions based on internal judgments, not external carrots and sticks. For more on this, please check out Unconditional Parenting, by Alfie Kohn. You can read the first chapter, which goes into behaviorism and why it’s not appropriate for parenting, here.

The thing is, the concepts of rewards and punishment are so ingrained in our culture and our thinking that it’s at first hard to see how it might be damaging. Think of it this way: We are putting out little fires again and again, instead of investing a lot of time and money to create a fire-resistant structure. And we’re neglecting to notice all the little scorched spots adding up…

I am not merely interested in changing the day-to-day behavior of my kids–and I believe that that’s all rewards and punishments really do. Behavior is really just a symptom of the way that the child is currently perceiving the world to operate.

Behavior is like the mushroom (incidental), while the essential substance of belief/worldview (which manifests behaviors of all sorts) is the mycelium–invisible, yet vast and essential. Just stamping out the mushroom won’t get of the mycelium from which it sprung.

Punishing “bad’ behavior might get rid of the behavior, but punishment does not help the child to internalize why the behavior is being labeled as “bad”–WHY he shouldn’t do it. He is learning that the adults in the world around him don’t like when he does X, so he learns to avoid doing x when they’re around, or until he’s grown up.

Or–perhaps just as bad–he learns that pleasing the people in his external world is what’s important in life, and he dissociates from or subverts those parts of himself that display as “bad” in the opinion of the people around him. Never questioning why x is “bad” is the first place, what circumstances make x “bad,” or whether x is indeed “bad” at all.

Punishments create a worldview in which the child learns to look to others for what’s right and wrong, and critically thinking about WHY things are the way they are is not emphasized. Even the laws of the land, ideally, are followed because they make sense, because there is a rhyme and reason to them that we generally agree with. We don’t all drive on the right side of the road solely because we’re afraid we’ll get a traffic fine or go to jail if we don’t.

There are plenty of things in life with natural negative consequences–we don’t need to arbitrarily create more of them to teach kids about actions having consequences. If your kiddo leaves his skates out in the rain, and they get mildewed, he will likely learn from that without any additional negativity imposed by you. He’ll have to scrub the mildew off, or the skates will need to be thrown out, or he’ll have to save his money or wait until you can buy another pair for him. He might miss out on skating with his friends for awhile, etc.

Incidentally, this is not the same thing as purposely cleaning up the rest of the yard but leaving his skates there to “teach him a lesson”. There’s a line between natural consequences and on-purpose consequences–and you also don’t want to miss an opportunity to be nice for the sake of niceness. Next time he might remember, and bring your garden tools in along with his skates, for niceness… Think the best of your child–giving the benefit of the doubt to him will teach him to do the same with others…eventually.

That’s not to say we should embrace and encourage tantrums at the grocery store–but we’d certainly do well to recognize that children don’t WANT to lose control, or make us angry, etc. If they do something that makes us angry, most likely they had a need that they were trying to meet (in their not-yet-developed, immature way), that precluded our opinion about what they were doing.

One caveat here, however–if there’s already a controlling/manipulative, adversarial relationship firmly in place, an older child might actually be retaliating with his behavior–i.e, trying to make his parents angry. By the time I was about 8 years old, I did sometimes try to make my parents angry–becasue I felt like I had no way to make them understand me, so i wanted to get back at them for making up arbitrary punishments and “consequences”, and never believing me when I explained the reason why I’d done something “wrong”. Kids can be hurt so much more deeply than most parents realize. We say kids are resilient, and they are, but that’s no reason to treat them as if their emotions are trifling.

We can apply this concept of whether the child is “trying” to make us angry to this common scenario: The two year old who tells bald-faced lies. You see them unroll the toilet paper.

“Did you just unroll the toilet paper?!”

“No,” they say.

Most parenting “experts” would say the child should be punished for lying AND unrolling the toilet paper, at this point.

Here’s an alternative interpretation of what’s going on, which I believe is much more plausible:

The two-yr old has poor impulse control (incidentally, impulse control is not fully developed in humans until somewhere between 18 and 22 years old), and also has a magical and/or very subjective (i.e. what HE believes is what IS) view of reality. He saw the toilet paper and thought it would be fun (educational!) to unroll it! Whee!

Then he saw your face and heard your tone of voice, and realized that he’d upset you. Ohh–oops. He wishes he hadn’t done it, so he says “No” when you ask him if he did it. He is responding to your question in accordance with what he *wishes* were true, now that he realizes he upset you. Further, the two year old knows fully well that you saw him do it.

So, it’s setting him up for confusion and asking him to displease you even more, when you ask him a question that he knows you already know the answer to!

It’s much more helpful to just clean up the toilet paper mess together and calmly talk about why we don’t play with toilet paper (it hurts trees, that’s not how we use it, it’s expensive, etc etc)–or even better, just laugh with your child about it–delight in his delight! Then, make sure the toilet paper is not available for playtime in the future.

I already hear the objections: “That’s not feasible/convenient for everyone!” But of course, nobody said that mindfully raising a child was going to be even close to convenient 😉

So we’ve talked about punishments and consequences–now, rewards.

I know, I know. When I was first introduced to the concept of rewards as harmful, I felt frustrated! I’d already come so far from hitting and yelling–even rewards are harmful?

“I give him chocolate, he pees in the potty! I let him watch TV with me for an hour, after he eats all his dinner! How can this be wrong?”

The research of behaviorist psychologists has found again and again that introducing rewards for certain activities actually decreases motivation for those activities, compared to before rewards were introduced. So even if we do succeed in getting rid of a negative behavior by offering rewards, we are actually reinforcing the desire to do something if, and only if, a reward is involved–still not addressing the underlying cause of the “bad” behavior.

I put “bad” in quotes because often we label behaviors of children as bad or good, when really we aren’t aware of the underlying reasons why a child is acting the way he or she is.

If we provide rewards for our children reading books, doing chores, or other “desirable” behaviors, then we actually dampen the natural desire and instinct of children, which is to learn and interact with their environments. Rewards interfere with the natural process, which is to derive joy from learning, helping, or otherwise participating in daily life.

I understand that offering rewards is a really hard habit to break! My mother raised me on a steady diet of “good job!”, presents for good grades, and chore charts–and it just created apathy and distrust.

“She said my drawing was awesome when I barely even tried. Does she really even look at my art? If I get a dollar for “doing the laundry”, what if I can’t fold the sheets? How much less can I get away with?”

Incidentally, it’s the same with grading work in school:

“If I know I can get an A with minimal effort, why waste my time doing more? If I don’t do the report at all, I can still pass with a B? How many days can I miss and still pass the class?”

These are the sorts of questions I think virtually every opportunistic teenager asks in junior high and high school–because schools especially train kids to focus on “getting the grade” rather than actually challenging their mind or pushing to learn and try new, difficult tasks. Hyper-focus on grades is a big part of the reason why I think our schools are failing. We are looking at education as a product to be prepared, instead of a process to be explored and savored.

If the goal in school is to get the grade, then minimal effort is going to be expended to achieve maximum grade percentage. Kids usually aren’t willing to risk a lower grade for going out on a limb and pushing themselves to improve upon their personal best. If they can get a 90% (i.e, a “reward”) with moderate effort and few mistakes, why would they risk getting a lower grade (i.e. getting “punished”)–even if the alternative assignment is more challenging, interesting, or mind-expanding?

Ultimately, what it comes down to is your underlying beliefs about human nature. Are we self-destructive, hapless beings who naturally gravitate toward negativity in our relationships with self/others/environment if not for artificial constructs keeping us in line (rewards, punishments, rules, laws, etc)? Or are we naturally self-affirming and growth-oriented, naturally inclined to meet our needs, and in need of only minimal, gentle guidance to help us learn to do so in ways that are respectful and helpful to the world/others?

I believe the latter, without a doubt.

What do you think?