Friday, November 14, 2008

Are rewards good?

One of the big push-backs I get on some of the stuff in Parentonomics is the idea of rewarding kids for good behaviour. A set of objections are to materialistic stuff. One psychologist argued that it is better to reward kids with hugs and love than special treats or toys. I presume that he also means that we should withhold hugs and love if they don't behave. That implication sounds cruel to me but I am no psychologist.

Following up from the post the other day on paying kids for good behaviour, another psychologist appears to be disputing the whole idea of rewards and punishments, regardless of their form. Alfie Kohn writes:
Rewards and punishments are not opposites; they are two sides of the same coin and that coin doesn’t buy very much. The one thing you can get by dangling a goody in front of children if they do what you want is the same thing you can get by threatening to make them suffer if they don’t do what you want. What you get is temporary compliance, but it comes at a very steep cost.
Basically, he argues that you stuff things up for the long term by using rewards in the short-term. This strikes me as somewhat extreme although I have to agree that the goal isn't to rely on these things forever.

Apparently, the alternative is just to talk about it. But his prime example is this:

In “Unconditional Parenting,” I give an example about when my daughter, Abigail, was in preschool. It took her forever to get ready in the morning. I was nagging her, and I didn’t like that and she didn’t like that. My response wasn’t to threaten her with a consequence, nor did I offer her a reward for speeding up. I’m not house-training a puppy; I’m raising a child.

Instead I waited until we were both in good moods and not in the middle of rushing to get somewhere and I invited her to imitate what I sound like in the morning when I am nagging her to get ready. She turned out to be a devastatingly gifted impersonator. Then I asked her what she saw as the reason for the problem every morning and what she thought might be the solution. She said, “I take a lot of time getting dressed so maybe I should just wear my clothes to bed.” She did exactly that for several years.

Hold on a minute. She went to bed in clothes rather than avoid, I'm guessing a discussion. How is that a solution? That is precisely the sort of behaviour that clear and explicit rewards and punishments might get as an unintended consequence. My eldest daughter similarly had an issue of getting ready quickly. We gave her a reward for timely dressing and she, in fact, proposed sleeping in her clothes. We said no. The point is to get dressed quickly. Not to get dressed slowly the night before.

As usual all this depends on the child. If talking works, then good for you. But if not, then there are more tools in parent's arsenal.