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Reward Systems

Posted Dec 04 2009 12:00am

Rational Jenn has written yet another great post on parenting:  Discipline without Rewards.  My thoughts are similar to hers, but differ enough that I wanted to write a response here.

You should really read the whole thing yourself, but here are a few paragraphs that (I hope) essentialize Jenn’s position:

Alfie Kohn, in his book Punished By Rewards , defines rewarding as a parent saying to a child “Do X and then you’ll get Y.” If you can put the interaction into If-Then terms, then it might be a reward. That is what we do not do around here with our kids–promise them something in order to get them to behave in a certain way…

My primary objection to using rewards is that the process involves a kind of mental bait-and-switch tactic. It takes (some or all of) the child’s attention away from what needs to be done and why and places (some or all of) his attention onto the reward.  In encouraging the child to switch his focus away from the rational reasons he ought to engage in a certain behavior, he is losing a valuable opportunity to learn some deeper ethical lessons…

If-Then Rewarding, while certainly effective in getting a child to act in a particular way, doesn’t reinforce the more abstract ideas of independence and responsibility and other great things I think my kids need to practice and understand thoroughly before heading out into the world.

I agree with all of this in essence, but I have some important disagreements.  I don’t think that “reinforcing the more abstract ideas of independence and responsibility” is always accomplished by means of having a concrete connection between cause and effect in every instance.  I guess I’d summarize my position as: “Use extrinsic motivators temporarily, for long-range skills and habits, and never as a default.”

First, I think rewards are appropriate to encourage effort at gaining new skills, especially skills that are much more easily acquired when young like swimming or riding a bike.  Kids can not and do not think long-range at birth, and they don’t know that their effort will pay off in the end.  They need to learn this.  Getting them to put forth effort for a totally arbitrary short-range reward is a great way to get them started, if they are not so inclined.  I’m not willing to let my daughter suffer the natural consequences of not learning to swim or ride a bike without trying rewards to get her started.

I think that it is a parent’s job to teach a child how important it is to put effort into long-range activities and skills, where the natural consequence will not be achieved quickly.  How can children learn this except by being “tricked” into doing it a few times?  You can push your children with negative, arbitrary punishments (”practice piano for an hour a day or you’ll be grounded”) or with positive, arbitrary rewards (”practice piano consistently for a month and we’ll take you out to the restaurant of your choice”).  I think the positive way is much better.  But if you leave it to them entirely, I don’t see how children could be expected to foresee the wonderful effects of such persistence before they have any experience.  I don’t think it takes much of this kind of rewarding, but I do think it takes some.  In the piano example, I would imagine a month might even be too long.  Once the child learns one song, they have a data-point to understand that continuing to practice will bring more and more value.  My point is that it is ok, and even necessary, for children to do things for which they have no independent, intrinsic motivation.  In other words, in some cases:

The child will only learn the rewards of virtue after practicing that virtue, in action, and seeing the positive results firsthand.

Even then, I think the more connected the reward is to the behavior, the better.  I call these logical consequences.  I got this from Susan Crawford, who makes a great distinctionbetween natural and logical consequences, saying that a natural consequence happens if the parent just stays out of the way, whereas a logic consequence is imposed by the parent, but connected to the original action in a logical way. (The natural consequence of learning to swim is simply gaining the skill.  A positive, logical consequence would be throwing a pool party for the child at the end of summer.)  Outside of the positive and negative versions of these consequences are the arbitrary, negative “punishments” and the arbitrary, positive “rewards.”  But I don’t see a clear dividing line between positive, logical consequences and many rewards.  The pool party could be viewed as a reward.  There is a continuum, although once you get to star-charts it’s arbitrary, and I’m fine with that too if there is nothing else you can think of.  I have a great example of this that I’ll save for my next post about how we’re motivating Sammy to dress herself.

Second, I think rewards are great as a stop-gap.  We used the Cooperation Chart for that reason.  We used it for 10 days and it worked and we went back to our usual natural and logical consequences.

And third, I think as long as the norm is to focus on natural and logical consequences, it’s fine to use rewards on occasion simply to make the parents’ lives easier.  If you have some isolated behavior that you want to encourage or stop, and you have a lot going on and it just needs to get done to save your sanity, a reward is fine.  It just has to be a rare exception and not the rule.  I don’t think a few instances of using rewards will harm the child. 

Despite this disagreement with Jenn, I agree with her basic point.  I am horrified with the way that parents often default into reward systems for everything - money for grades, ice cream for politeness (when the child is old enough to be polite for the right, selfish reasons), TV for chores, etc.  This kind of parenting is a recipe for secondhandedness, for sure, and this is a more fundamental issue than the exceptions I note here.  But I don’t think this damns rewards entirely.  I think they just need to be used for the right reasons.

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