PUNISHED BY REWARDS
by Alfie Kohn - Houghton Mifflin, 2000
in / parent + teacher books
Truly, I don’t think the words ‘good job’ have ever left my mouth – after all I’m Australian and it’s just not something we say all that much. But it’s not the phrase that matters, it’s the sentiment, the motivation, and the effect.
Punished by Rewards was the first of Kohn’s books that I read – and I’ve read many since then. It’s eye-opening and well worth the read. To get a taste for it, this article is a good overview, including this:
"I want her to share her pleasure with me, not look to me for a verdict. I want her to exclaim, 'I did it!'".
Here’s the general idea:
When we praise kids – either with the ubiquitous ‘good job’ or using pretty much any other form of praise – we are treading on dangerous ground.
The article lists five reasons why we should just stop it:
Firstly – praise is manipulative. When we praise kids, especially when we do it with a sing-song sort of voice, we are not really expressing admiration. Rather we’re mostly trying to elicit more of the same genre of behaviour.
Reason number two is that we’ll probably get that genre of behaviour! Kids get so used to praise that they’ll do most anything to get it. Kohn calls them praise junkies. And that might sound like just what we were hoping for. But is it really?
Do we really want the kids in our care to do things because we approve? The answer seems to be a resounding 'yes' when they're little. But in reality, by the time they’re teenagers they lead complex lives with lots of little and big decisions to make - and most parents would agree that we’re simply not qualified to make those decisions.
So if we want our teenagers to make personal decisions, based solidly on personal values and carefully considered reason, they must start young.
Which leads us to the third reason – there’s a lot of joy to be had in making decisions and trying, succeeding and even failing if we have the support and skills needed for resilience.
If parents, carers and educators take on themselves the role of praise dispenser they take that joy away. After all, if I praise you every time you comply with my standards and expectations, I’m making your actions and decisions about how I assess them rather than about you. Which is bad enough. But the other thing that praise does is de-motivate.
And that’s point number four – praise causes kids (well everyone actually) to lose interest in the task at hand; instead, they become interested in getting the praise.
Kohn says: “Now the point isn’t to draw, to read, to think, to create – the point is to get the goody, whether it’s an ice cream, a sticker, or a "Good job!"
Finally, point five, praise actually reduces achievement. The very opposite of what we might have thought we were doing by praising. Kohn gives three reasons for this – 1) praise creates pressure. 2) it reduces interest, and 3) it makes risk-taking less likely.
You may be looking for some sort of proof for all these counter-culture ideas - and for that you’ll need to go to the book.
"But wait," I hear you ask, because I asked it myself, "what am I supposed to say when a child does something I’m happy about or impressed by?"
In a nutshell: be genuine in your delight, express admiration if you feel admiration, ask questions, be authentically engaged. Kohn offers suggestions in the article that will help us to say what we really mean, or more clearly express our corrected motivation.
Parents setting out down this path sometimes feel a little tongue-tied – after all it’s hard to change the way we talk. But it’s so worth the practice to get it right. Here's that article link again and you might like to check out our other Alfie Kohn posts - his thoughts and books might be controversial and sometimes difficult to put into practice, but they're never dull!