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Should parents use rewards and praise?

Girl standing in park eating ice cream that is melting.
Credit: iStock.com/fotostorm

For many parents, trying to get a two-year-old to do almost anything can be challenging. It’s no wonder then, as children move through toddlerhood and into preschool age, parents are eager for solutions.

One that initially seems very appealing is rewards. Whether it’s a sticker, an ice cream or a coveted coin, rewards can appear incredibly motivating for young children. But according to Alfie Kohn the problem with rewards is that, like punishments, they can only produce one thing: temporary obedience.

Alfie is an educator and the author of fourteen books, including Punished By Rewards. He speaks widely on human behaviour, education, and parenting and lectures at education conferences and universities. Alfie says rewarding children is problematic in a number of ways.

“Rewards can never help kids develop a commitment to whatever it is they were rewarded for doing, nor do they help children become responsible, ethical, decent people. In fact, research has repeatedly shown that the more you reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. So rewards aren’t just ineffective – they’re actually counterproductive,” says Alfie.

Telling children to ‘Do this and you’ll get that’ feels controlling, causes dependence, and may spoil our relationship with our children.
Alfie Kohn

The problem with using rewards

Alfie says it’s not the reward itself that’s objectionable — instead, it’s the practice of using something as a reward that causes the problem.

“Telling children to ‘Do this and you’ll get that’ feels controlling, causes dependence, and may spoil our relationship with our children,” he says.

Additionally, Alfie believes that dangling incentives in front of children is a way of doing things ‘to’ them, as opposed to working ‘with’ them.

“It’s a form of sugar-coated control. In the long run people react badly to being controlled, even if they like the goodie itself,” he notes.

Part of the issue is that there are different types of motivation. The type of motivation a child feels towards the task is key.

“If children are intrinsically motivated to engage in an activity that means they find it valuable or satisfying in its own right. If they are extrinsically motivated they are simply doing it to get a result outside of the task, such as a reward,” he says.

It’s intrinsic motivation which parents should be aiming for. However, this requires teaching our children to look inside, rather than towards external validation.

“Only extrinsic motivation can be increased from the outside, so that’s what schools focus on with grades, points, awards, praise, and the like,” says Alfie.

What about praise?

Given the challenges of getting young children to cooperate, it’s perhaps unsurprising that if parents aren’t working on rewards, they’re heaping praise on their child for doing the right thing. But Alfie says research shows it is worth pulling the reins in here too.

“Several studies have shown that children who are frequently rewarded or praised tend to be somewhat less generous and caring than their peers. Furthermore, the negative effect is strongest when they're rewarded or praised for being generous,” he says.

The problem, Alfie says, is that praise isn't substantially different from tangible rewards.

“It's really just a verbal doggie biscuit. In fact, praise adds a new problem; in addition to being manipulative it communicates conditional acceptance and care. Children may come to feel they're loved (and lovable) only when they please or impress the praise-giver.” 

Instead, what kids actually need to flourish is the very opposite of praise.

“They need unconditional love,” he says.

Of course, there are times when praise is appropriate and guidance is necessary — especially with toddlers and preschoolers.

“But a constant stream of value judgments is neither necessary nor useful for children’s development,” Alfie says.

He points out that the much-used expression ‘Good job!’ is just as much an evaluation as ‘Bad job!’.

“The most notable feature of a positive judgment isn’t that it’s positive, but that it’s a judgment. And people, including kids, don’t like being judged. I love occasions when my daughter does something for the first time, or better than she’s ever done it before. But I try to resist the knee-jerk tendency to say, ‘Good job!’ as I want her to share her pleasure with me, not look to me for a verdict. I want her to exclaim, ‘I did it!’ instead of asking me uncertainly, ‘Was that good?’,” he says.

If not rewards, then what?

Alfie says that rather than asking how we can get our children to do what they are told, we should consider a different question.

“We should ask instead, ‘What do kids need – and how can we meet those needs?’,” he says.

If our goal is to help our children longer term, bringing them onboard in the decision making process is the best way forward, according to Alfie.

“You might say: “I’ve noticed that lately it’s taking you a long time to get dressed in the morning, honey. How do you think we can solve that?”

We also have to reconsider some of our requests.

“Instead of bribes to get a four-year-old to sit through a long dinner, we might reflect on whether that expectation is age-appropriate,” he says.

3 reasons to stop saying ‘Good job’

Punished by Rewards author, Alfie Kohn, provides the following insights.

1 Praise can be more about convenience than meeting children’s emotional needs.

“The reason praise can work in the short run is that young children are hungry for our approval. But we have a responsibility not to exploit that dependence for our own convenience; kids may come to feel manipulated by this, even if they can’t quite explain why.”

2. You don’t want to create a praise junkie.

While Alfie admits that not every use of praise is calculated to control children’s behaviour, it can increase their dependence on us. “The more we say, ‘I like the way you….’ or ‘Good work’, the more kids come to rely on our evaluations, or our decisions about what’s good and bad, rather than learning to form their own judgments.”

3. Praise is telling children how to feel.

Alfie says children deserve to take delight in their accomplishments, and feel pride in what they’ve learned how to do. However, they also deserve to decide when to feel that way. “Every time we say, ‘Good job!’, we’re telling a child how to feel,” Alfie says.