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Are Punishments and Rewards Effective in the Long Run?

Are Punishments and Rewards Effective in the Long RunLike the majority of parents on planet Earth, everyday when I pick Felix up from school, I ask him how his day went. (Note to self: find a more interesting question to ask him tomorrow!) For the most part he replies, “I was nice to all my friends today.”

“Awesome!” I tell him. “When you get home you can add a sticker to your chart.”

After two weeks of these reports, Felix had racked up ten happy face stickers, which meant that he could watch a movie of his choice. He was thrilled, and my wife and I felt very proud of our happily socializing little boy.

Imagine our surprise, then, when it turned out that he had been lying to us about his behavior.

At the end of last week, his teacher busted my bubble. Turns out that he had been having unpleasant altercations with his friends — “being mean” in Felix’s parlance — and so the teachers have started their own chart, where everyday that he’s nice, Felix earns a star. Now, I figured that my wife and I had been duped by Felix’s inaccurate reports on his behavior, but I let it drop. What’s done is done. The important thing seemed to be figuring out how to improve things going forward.

So last night after dinner my wife and I explained to Felix that from now on, he’d only get a sticker on his chart at home if he also earned a star on his chart at school. That’s when Felix raised the issue of his lying himself. “I didn’t really earn those stickers,” he told us. He took the chart from the fridge. “This one, this one, this one, this one… I was mean to my friends those days but didn’t tell you.”

“You lied to us,” my wife said.

“Yeah. I wanted a sticker.”

“It’s never good to lie to someone,” I told him. “Lying is wrong.”

“I’m sorry,” he said.

And then he scooted off, suddenly interested in some toy he had found on the floor, too embarrassed to discuss the topic any further. My wife and I didn’t pursue the subject either, since it sounded as if he understood that he did a wrong thing. What I wonder is, are we pursuing the right path by using stickers and a reward chart in the first place?

I’m concerned that the reward — the movie — is actually a bribe. The Growing Child Newsletter tells me that the difference between a bribe and a reward is that a bribe is dangled before the child in order to motivate their behavior, while a reward is given to them as a result of their behavior. In other words, I would reward Felix with a sticker spontaneously, because I noticed him being good in school and felt proud of him for it. By making the sticker conditional upon his good behavior, I am in fact bribing him.

This means that instead of learning how to behave himself because it’s the right thing to do, he’s learning that if he behaves himself he’ll get something, which is not the consumerist message I want to be sending. It also can lead to all sorts of other nasty unpleasantness, like taking shortcuts, or lying, in order to get the thing that he wants.

As educator Alfie Kohn put it in his book of the same title, children can be “Punished by Rewards” — their behavior and performance suffers over the long run with external rewards or punishments, because they recognize these as methods of control. Kohn argues that we should be empowering and encouraging our children to do good work and behave themselves because that’s simply the right thing to do — it makes us feel good about ourselves, far better than a gold star or a million dollar bonus would.

I love this in theory, but in my experience with kids as a teacher and a parent, concrete reward systems yield payoffs. Especially in regards to my son. I have found it difficult explaining to Felix that he should behave in socially acceptable ways simply because that’s the right way to act. He’s a concrete kid, and his social skills — his ability to communicate, and empathize, and exhibit compassion — are developing slow. He’s also very stubborn, and hates being told that he’s wrong. Providing a reward or setting a punishment makes it clear cut. Do this and get this in return. This transaction makes sense to him, and it works.

And yet. He’s lied to get a reward. He’s also suggested rewards for himself. “If I’m good at my playdate then can I come home an watch TV?” (“Of course not,” is always the answer to this. Unless I suggested the deal in the first place.) He’s already trying to play the system to his advantage, and this has me worried in the long run.

 

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