We give our children ice-cream if they're "good",
chocolate if they're quiet, little gold stars if they eat their greens,
maybe even money if they get good marks at school. We praise them with a
"good boy!" or "good girl!" if they do something that
pleases us. For the modern and discerning parent, the hitting-and-shaming method
of "discipline" is passˇ. Punishment is out, and rewards are in.
Why use the stick, when we can better teach a child by using a carrot?
The New Age hype about praising and
rewarding children for what we call "good" behavior has gained
massive popularity. "Find something good your child has done, and
praise them for it!" say the nouveau "how-to" books and
seminars. Psychologists all over recommend the "star-chart"
treatment to modify your child's behavior. This trend is the offspring of a
particular school of psychology - the "behaviorists" - whose
thinking currently dominates much of mainstream psychological and
There is plenty of evidence that in the long term, reward
systems are ineffective.
In fact, these days praising or rewarding your kids'
"good" behavior is so customary that almost nobody - until
recently - has thought to question its validity. Praising or rewarding kids
is just plain common sense, and good parenting - isn't it?. Who would doubt
that it's good to give children praise, or prizes when they perform to our
The praise-and-reward method is definitely
hunky-dory, since it is backed by a ton of evidence from the most
methodical and ingenious research that money can buy. Actually, it springs
from the work of psychologists who painstakingly discovered that they could
train rats to run mazes, pigeons to peck at colored buttons, and dogs to
salivate at the sound of the dinner bell - by giving them a controlled
schedule of rewards. Psychologists soon became titillated about the idea of
controlling human beings, by applying to us the same principles that worked
on animals. Imagine their excitement when they realized that rewards work
exactly the same on humans as on rats, pigeons and dogs. Modern
psychological know-how has enabled us to manipulate children's behavior,
thoughts and emotions in the same way as we can teach a seal, with a few
sardines and a little flattery, to balance a ball on its nose.
One problem, though. We don't particularly care about the
quality of relationship we develop with a lab-rat. We are not concerned
with rodents' developing self-esteem, their sense of autonomy or
independence, nor do we give a hoot whether the rat will get interested in
trying bigger and better mazes of it's own accord, long after we stop
rewarding it with little food pellets. And that, as most of our experts
have failed to tell us, is where the whole fancy technology of
"reward, praise and reinforce" falls to pieces.
Over and over we have been taught that we
should praise and reward our children a lot more. What could be wrong with
that? On the surface, praise looks marvelous - the key to successful
children! Scratch this surface, however, and the results look very
But, rewards improve children's behavior
and performance, don't they?
Or so we thought. However, when the little
gold stars or jelly-beans stop coming, the behavior we were trying to
reinforce tends to peter out. Children that have grown used to expecting
praise, can feel crushed when it doesn't come. This dampens their
perseverance. There is plenty of evidence that in the long term, reward
systems are ineffective.
Contrary to popular myth, there are many studies showing that
when children expect or anticipate rewards, they perform more poorly. One study found
that students' performance was undermined when offered money for better
marks. A number of American and Israeli studies show that reward systems
suppress students' creativity, and generally impoverish the quality of
their work. Rewards can kill creativity, because they discourage
risk-taking. When children are hooked on getting a reward, they tend to
avoid challenges, to "play it safe". They prefer to do the
minimum required to get that prize.
Here is a good illustration of why we made
the mistake of believing in rewards, based on benefits that appear on
the surface. When an American fast-food company offered food prizes to
children for every book they read, reading rates soared. This certainly
looked encouraging - at first glance. On closer inspection, however, it was
demonstrated that the children were selecting shorter books, and that their
comprehension test-scores plummeted. They were reading for junk-food,
rather than for the intrinsic enjoyment of reading. Meanwhile, reading
outside school (the unrewarded situation) dropped off. There are many more
studies showing that, while rewards may well increase activity, they
smother enthusiasm and kill passion. Individuals anticipating rewards lose
interest in activities that were otherwise attractive. It seems that the
more we want the reward, the more we come to dislike what we have to do to
get it. The activity required of us stands in the way of our coveted prize.
It would have been smarter to just give the kids more interesting books, as
there is plenty of evidence that intrinsically enjoyable activity is the
best motivator and performance enhancer.
The use of praise or rewards does not make children feel
supported. It makes them feel evaluated and judged.
Can rewards and praise harm our relationship with our
You wouldn't think that the positive things
you say to your child about himself or herself can be as destructive as
negative labels. But there are times when this is true. Thanks to modern
advances in behavioral science, our ability to seduce or manipulate
children (and animals! and grown-ups!) to do what we want them to has
become increasingly sophisticated. But the cost of manipulating through
rewards has been great. Below are ten ways in which praise and rewards can
damage our relationship with our children.
- Rewards and praise
condition children to seek approval; they end up doing things to
impress, instead of doing things for themselves. This can hold back
the development of self-motivation and makes them dependent on outside
opinion. When children get used to getting goodies for
"performing", they become pleasers, over-reliant on positive
strokes. Rewards and praise can create a kind of addictive behavior:
children can get addicted to recognition, and thus lose touch with the
simple joy of doing what they love. So many of us are addicted to
prestige: we get depressed when admiration fails to come. Instead of
doing what we do for its own sake, we fish for flattery or
reassurance, and when the applause dies away, we sink into despair.
Giving rewards or praise can be habit-forming. This is because the
more rewards we use, the more we have to use them to keep children
motivated. Praise cannot create a personal commitment to
"good" behavior or performance. It only creates a commitment
to seeking praise.
- One of the worst things we
can do is to praise a child's potential. Acclamations like "I
just know you can do it", "You're getting better!",
"I know you've got it in you!", "You'll get
there!" sound supportive on the surface. But these compliments
are loaded with our expectation that the child must improve in some
way. It tells the child there is a target to keep reaching for in
order to get the full "bravo!". Praising children's
potential does not help them to like themselves for who they already
are, and can make them feel disappointed with themselves. Underneath
the praise is the silent implication: "you're not good enough
yet". This seduces children to work harder to impress us, at the
expense of their own self-esteem. As psychologist Louise Porter says:
"If you want children to develop a healthy self-esteem, stop
praising them" (see reading list below).
- Rewarding children's
compliance is the flip-side of punishing their disobedience. It is
seduction in the place of tyranny. Many studies show that parents who
use more rewards also use more punishment, they are more likely to be
autocratic. Praise is the sweet side of authoritarian parenting. It
reduces the relationship to one of controller and controlled. That is
why the more astute - or less gullible! - children feel something
"icky" in praise; it makes them feel condescended to. Praise
is a reminder that the praiser has power over them. It diminishes the
child's sense of autonomy, and, like a little pat on the head, it
keeps them small.
- Meanwhile, the rewarder is
like an assessor, judging what merits praise and what doesn't. This
makes them somewhat scary to the child. The use of praise or rewards
does not make children feel supported. It makes them feel evaluated
and judged. Though "Good boy!" or "Good girl!" is
a positive judgment, it is still a judgment from on high, and
ultimately it alienates the child.
- The more insightful
children can see right through manipulation. They are onto us, they
think our praise is calculating, and they are not easily outwitted by
seductive tactics. In particular, when praise is a technique we have
learned from a book or a seminar, it is likely to come across as false
and contrived. Praise and rewards, like flattery, can stink of our
efforts to control, and lose our child's respect.
- Children, just like adults,
naturally recoil from being controlled. We all want to grow toward
self-determination. Praise can therefore create resistance, since it
impinges on a child's developing sense of autonomy.
- Rewards punish, because the
child is denied the reward, praise or approval unless he or she
"comes up with the goods". Moreover, the child who is used
to being praised begins to feel inadequate if the praise doesn't come.
Nothing feels more defeating to a child than to miss out on a reward
that he or she had been conditioned to expect. Inside every carrot,
there is a stick.
- When children are bribed
with rewards for "good" behavior, they soon learn how to
manipulate us by acting the part that is expected of them. They wise
up to what it takes to get the goodies from us: the approval, the
ice-cream, whatever. They become superficially compliant, doing
whatever it takes to flatter or impress us, and honesty suffers. After
all, who wants to be honest or real with a person who is evaluating
them? Once relating is reduced to mutual manipulation rather than
authenticity, this sets the stage for manipulative and dishonest
relationships later in life. Manipulation erodes the functions of
mutual trust, vulnerability and transparency, which are vital to
healthy intimate relationships.
As a result of early manipulation, we grow up trying hard to please,
or we learn to use our wiles to impress, in order to get the goodies -
at the expense of being our natural selves. We develop a phony or
false self that distorts our relationships with others.
- Among siblings, or in the
classroom, reward systems create competition, jealousy, envy, and
mistrust. Rewards or prizes for "good" performance are a
threat to co-operation or collaboration.
- Praise can make children
feel robbed. If we are hungry for admiration ourselves, we can
sometimes err by deriving it through our children's triumphs. We use
them to make up for our own wounded self-esteem or pride. If we are
praising them because they have made us feel good about ourselves,
they sense this. This takes away from their good feelings about
themselves; our praise can act as rain on their picnic. Some children
refuse to produce what they are naturally good at, because they are
repulsed by their parents' gloating.
Appreciation is different from praise because it is not
Why are praising and rewarding so popular?
Rewards are an easy way out, easier than
trying to understand why a child is, as many like to glibly call it,
"misbehaving". For example, why bother to find out why a child
refuses to go to sleep at our convenience, (is he afraid? is she feeling
lonely? is he still hungry? etc.) if we can simply reward him or her with a
trinket for going to bed on time? It feels easier to fudge over the
underlying problem by using a bribe. This gives the child the clear message
that we are not interested in how he or she feels. Worse still, we risk
overlooking a serious emotional problem. Rewards and praise can be a gimmicky
quick-fix that ignores the child as a whole person.
Rewards work well for getting children to do something that
they don't naturally want to do, for the short-term only. This immediate
behavior change rewards us, and keeps us addicted to rewarding. The
negative consequences of rewards and praise don't materialize until later,
so we fail to recognize rewards and praise as the culprit.
But children do need acknowledgment, and
positive feedback. What can we do instead of praise them?
Often we want to express our delight and
appreciation for our children; who they are as individuals, and the amazing
things they do. Appreciation is different from praise because it is not
manipulative. Manipulative praise, as opposed to spontaneous expressions of
appreciation or acknowledgment, is loaded with the covert expectation that
the child do the praiseworthy act again. Most children can sense this; they
can feel the difference between genuine acknowledgment, and a deliberate
strategy to reinforce their behavior. So, how do we give our children
Avoiding praise or rewards does not mean
holding back the love and delight we feel for our children, nor our
instinctual desire to encourage them - far from it! It is perfectly
possible to join in with our children and celebrate every step of their
unfolding, without being manipulative. Here's a few suggestions for how to
acknowledge and encourage your children to your heart's content - and
theirs - while avoiding the use of praise.
Focus the child on his/her own pleasure
of lavishing children with congratulations, it's better if they focus
internally on the pleasure they derive from accomplishment. Children are
naturally thirsty to achieve, learn and conquer. They are born with an
insatiable zest for mastery, and each new attainment fills them with
delight. It is this self-enjoyment which provides the greatest fuel for
perseverance and further learning. When you see your child do something
new, it can be wonderfully encouraging and supportive to say: "you
look like you enjoyed that!", or: how did it feel to do that?".
"I'm glad you did that, you look happy with yourself!".
Help him/her to self-evaluate.
possible, it is a good idea to ask your child about their own
self-evaluation. For instance: "how do you like your
drawing?", "are you happy with how that piece fits into the
Ask them about their inner experiences.
for instance, your child reads you a story he just composed. After sharing
how the story made you feel, you could ask: "How do you feel about the
story you wrote?", "How did it feel to write it?", "Did
you enjoy telling it?", "How did you come up with those ideas for
your story?". There are few things so nourishing to your child's
self-esteem, and so enriching to your relationship with him, than your
interest in his inner world of feeling and imagination.
Use "I" statements, instead of
labeling the child.
appreciation touches your child more deeply when it is expressed in terms
of your feelings. For instance: "I like the colors you chose!",
or "I love how you sang that song!" - instead of: "what a
good drawer you are!", or "gee you're a good singer". Avoid
labeling statements like: "Good boy for sharing your toys!". Say
instead: "thanks for sharing with your friend, that felt good to him -
and to me". Focus on your feelings, not on a moral or quality-oriented
label. An "I" statement keeps you from holding a position of
power over your child. It creates an honest and fulfilling connection between
you while not interfering with their experience of themselves.
Comment on the behavior, not on the
and acknowledgment are definitely important. Imagine your child has just
played you a new piece she has learned on the piano. Instead of saying:
"What a good player you are!", you could tell her how much you
enjoyed the piece. Better still, be specific. Tell her what in particular
you liked about her playing (e.g. the passion or emotion, the beautiful
melody, how carefully she played, her sense of rhythm, etc.)
How do we know when our positive comments
Ultimately, the problem is not about the
perfect choice of words, or how much or when to make positive comments.
When you do the right thing for the wrong reasons, it ends up being the wrong
thing. Since the problem is one of intent, there is no other way but to
become good examiners of our own motives. This takes practice, and the
courage and humility to look within. When giving a positive comment, are
you trying to seduce the child into pleasing you again, into making Mama or
Papa proud? Or are you genuinely glad to see the child accomplish something
that pleases him, or genuinely delighting in her being? Therein lies
a paradox: that which is not intended to reinforce, but merely to
"connect", is the most reinforcing.
Is praise ever OK?
There is no need to muzzle ourselves, praise
is wonderful when it is not used manipulatively. For instance, rewards
should not be promised in advance, nor guaranteed every time the child does
something you like. Positive feedback is best for your relationship with
your child when it is offered spontaneously, when it springs from your
heart, and not as a deliberate ploy to get more of what you want from the
Praising and rewarding are deeply ingrained
habits, particularly as that's how most of us were raised and educated. It
may take practice to replace them with appreciation and acknowledgment, but
the latter feels more fulfilling, and can bring you and your child closer.
Children can certainly be made to do what
they don't want or love, by offering them approval, praise or other
rewards. But this does not make them happy. Happiness can only be derived
from doing what is intrinsically rewarding to us, and this does not require
others' applause. Do we want kids to become reward-addicts, crowd-pleasers,
and recognition-seekers, or do we want them to be self-motivated, faithful
to themselves, following their own interests? If the latter is true, then
the way is not to praise them but to appreciate them. At school, when the
work is made intrinsically interesting, enjoyable, meaningful and relevant,
this works better than reward systems to improve both the quality and the
commitment to the work.
Children are born with an enormous desire to
learn. They also have an innate capacity for honesty, empathy and
considerateness. These qualities come forward as a result of our guidance,
our role-modeling, and our appreciation. Rewards and praise for "good
behavior" or "good performance" simply get in the way.