075: Should we Go Ahead and Heap Rewards On Our Kid?

A couple of months ago, an article by journalist Melinda Wenner Moyer – whose work I normally greatly respect – started making the rounds on Facebook. Then (knowing my approach to parenting) a couple of readers emailed it to me and asked me what I thought of it.

The article was called Go Ahead: Heap Rewards On Your Kid, with the subtitle: Parents are told stickers and trinkets for good behavior will ruin their children—but the research is wildly misunderstood.


Moyer’s main point is that while a large number of sources state that rewards are detrimental to children’s development (largely to their intrinsic motivation), “the literature on the potential dangers of rewards has been misinterpreted while the findings on its benefits have been largely overlooked.”

I had already done an episode on the negative impact of rewards on children’s development. I was prepared to wholeheartedly disagree with Moyer’s article. But I came out of it sort of half-convinced that she might be right.

So I came up with a two-pronged approach to the research for this episode. Firstly, I would dig into all the research that she read (and some more besides) to fully understand the evidence she consults, with one guiding premise:

Is it possible that Moyer is right? Is it possible that rewards have some benefit for children and for families?

And secondly, I wanted to ask Alfie Kohn – the author of Punished by Rewards – to address these issues in-person.

Spoiler alert: heaping rewards on your kid is great for gaining compliance. If compliance is what you want in your child.


Get a free guide called How to Stop Using Rewards To Gain Your Child’s Compliance (And what to do instead)

I also want to let you know about the new Finding Your Parenting Mojo membership group. Each month the group will tackle one topic related to parenting and child development, and we’ll help you to learn about and implement new strategies and tools to support your child’s development and make parenting easier for you.

It’ll be like having a personal guide to help you implement the ideas you hear about on the show.

To tie in to this week’s episode, I have a FREE guide called How to Stop Using Rewards To Gain Your Child’s Compliance (And what to do instead) available as a preview of the membership group content. Each month you’ll get a guide just like this, walking you through a different aspect of parenting and helping you to make the changes needed to make sure your day-to-day-parenting is in line with your goals for the kind of child you want to raise.

Because it turns out that the desire to raise an independent, thoughtful adult with strong critical reasoning skills isn’t so well aligned with rewarding a child for complying with your wishes.


Mr. Alfie Kohn’s Book

Punished by rewards: Twenty-fifth anniversary edition: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, As, praise, and other bribes – Affiliate link


Read Full Transcript


Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. We have a bit of a different episode lined up for today, but before we get going I wanted to tell you about something you might be interested in if shifting toward the kind of parenting style we’ll discuss in this episode is something that you’re interested in trying, but you’re not exactly sure how to do it. I’m developing a membership community for parents who want to move toward using scientific research and principles of respectful parenting to ground their parenting, but who aren’t exactly sure how to do it. When I surveyed my listeners recently I realized that while a lot of you really like to hear the deep dives on the scientific literature that I cover in the show, you struggle with implementing the principles we discuss. Your children are still having tantrums; they are hitting each other; you have a hard time finding a balance between being present with your child and having your child engage in independent play so you can get things done. Your children are using screens more than you’d like, you aren’t sure how to foster the type of social, emotional, and intellectual skills your child will need as an adult, and your child does one or several things that trigger a quick anger that you don’t really know how to control. You’re tired, you feel like you’re parenting for survival rather than according to any kind of strategy, and you wish it could be easier but you’re not really sure how to make it happen.


In the membership community we will tackle one topic each month, using exercises to think through what we want to achieve in our parenting and how we’ll do that. You will have a group call with me to discuss any questions you have as you did the exercises that you need to have answered before you can begin implementing the changes. Then you’ll get a couple of weeks to work on it, before we have another group call where we review the problems you’ve had and fine-tune your approach. Throughout the month you’ll have my support, but also the support of a community of parents who are striving toward similar goals, and who share challenges and wins; doubts, and confirmations that they KNOW this is the way forward for them and how they are making progress on that journey.


By the end of the month you’ll already be implementing strategies that will help you to move beyond rewards, punishments, nagging, and yelling, to a place where you and your spouse are on the same page about your approach to parenting, and your parenting methods invite your child to work with you, rather than you needing to bribe them to do the things you want them to do.


For a quick win, we’ll start the first month by looking at tantrums: why children have them, the best way to handle it when your child is in the middle of one, and ways you can invite your child to help you help them prevent their tantrums in the future. Once we’ve reduced a little bit of stress in your life, we’ll take a step back and look at our broader goals for parenting: what kinds of qualities do we want our children to have when they grow up? Is the way that we are parenting on a daily basis helping them to develop and practice these qualities? And how do we get our spouse, who might not agree with all this scientific research and respectful parenting stuff, on board? After we’ve covered these topics, we’ll select a new topic each month based on the group’s interest, following the same process of learning about the strategies and then implementing them each time.


As we go forward, you’ll feel more confident as a parent. You’ll know that the interactions with your child that you have on a daily basis ARE grounded in what scientific research tells us is needed for children to develop unconditionally loving relationships with us. You won’t be nagging or reminding or even shouting as much, because your children will understand your boundaries and will actively seek to cooperate with you on the work of the household, because they see themselves as invested in the family.


If you want to learn more about this group, head on over to yourparentingmojo.com/membership for more information. I plan to launch at the beginning of November with a special price for pilot members, and this price will never be offered again. The last day to sign up at the special price is Thursday October 25th at midnight Pacific Standard Time.


Even if you’re not sure you’re ready for a group just yet, at the top of yourparentingmojo.com/membership you’ll find a free infographic that you can download that will summarize some of the key steps that we’ll learn in this episode about how to move beyond rewards, which you can refer to whenever you feel a bit lost and tempted to use praise or rewards to get your child to do something. Get the free infographic, and more information about the group if you’d like it, at yourparentingmojo.com/membership.


So now onto today’s topic: rewards. In Episode 9, Do you Punish Your Child With Rewards, I used Alfie Kohn’s book Punished By Rewards to make the case that rewards like praise and M&Ms and going out for ice cream are really only quantitatively, rather than qualitatively different from punishment. In other words, punishments and rewards are really activities on a continuum rather than being completely different, and if we’ve decided as parents that punishing our child isn’t something we want to do, that perhaps we should think twice about rewards as well.


Punished by Rewards is actually 25 years old now so in my episode I looked for more recent research that might have come to a different conclusion and I didn’t really find a lot, so I said this in the episode. It does seem as though more recent research had shown that rewards are detrimental to creativity so we might not want to reward activities where we hope our child will develop and use creativity, although Punished By Rewards actually does cite some sources arguing that creativity might not be completely detrimentally impacted by rewards.


But last year a journalist named Melinda Wenner Moyer wrote an article for Slate called Go Ahead, Reap Rewards on Your Kid, in which she argues that “blanket condemnations [of rewards, and she specifically cites Kohn’s book Punished by Rewards in this category] are unwarranted. Rewards can be useful in some situations and inappropriate in others, much like every other parenting tool. The literature on the potential dangers of rewards has been misinterpreted while the findings on its benefits have been largely overlooked.” As a side note before we go deeper into this topic, I have to say that the idea of rewards being “useful” does make it rather sound like something we are doing to a child, rather than something we do with them.


I actually missed the article at the time, but within the space of a couple of weeks this summer a listener emailed me a link to it and asked me what I thought of it, and I also saw it circulating on Facebook. I had been looking for an excuse to reach out to Alfie Kohn for some time as our world views on raising children are rather well aligned, and this seemed like too good of an excuse to pass up.


Before we get too far into this episode I do want to acknowledge the contributions of listener Jamie from Los Angeles to this episode. I’ve mentioned her before; she’s the one who sends me an email after each of my episodes telling me all the things I got wrong, but in the kindest most constructive, knowledgeable, and thoughtful way. She’s a massive Alfie Kohn fan herself so I reached out to her for her thoughts on my thoughts and she responded with an essay that might actually be longer than the one I wrote containing a ton of useful insights, many of which are incorporated here. So, huge thanks and respect to Jamie.


In a few minutes we are going to hear from the man himself, and the question I want to answer in our conversation is “Is it possible that Moyer is right, and that rewarding children has some potential benefits and fewer drawbacks than Kohn and others have stated?”. When I reached out to him, Mr. Kohn quickly responded and kindly agreed to talk, although he is quite strapped for time so I want to do most of the set-up for this episode outside of our interview. He will have read this introduction by the time we talk, so it’ll be almost as if we covered it together, only much more efficient.


So let’s discuss the major points that Moyer makes in her article. The first of these is that the vast majority of research on rewards, and specifically that conducted by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, who have done a LOT of research in this arena, has been conducted in situations where children want to do the activity the researchers are asking them to do. So the researcher might ask college students to do puzzles for 13 minutes on day 1, then on day 2 half of the children get offered a dollar for every puzzle they can complete in 13 minutes, but on day 3 they go back to nobody getting paid to do the puzzles. On each day, the researcher says at the end of the 13 minutes “OK, I’m going to leave the room for 8 minutes and you can do whatever you want,” and the options included more puzzles or reading magazines or presumably sitting and twiddling your thumbs. The students who were rewarded on the second day spent less time doing puzzles in their “free time” on day 3 than they had done on day 1, and less time than the students who were never rewarded did on day 3. Professor Deci, who did this research, concluded that rewarding people saps their intrinsic motivation for doing the puzzles.


Moyer pulls out two important points about this study, the first of which is that while it was statistically significant at p=0.1, it was not statistically significant at p=0.05, which is a way of saying that there is likely some relationship but not at the stringent p=0.05 level which is customarily regarded as best practice in psychological research. And I should also note that this fact is buried in the Results section and does not come across in the abstract, where the results are discussed as if they were significant at p=0.05. But the second point is one that I don’t believe I addressed fully enough in my episode, and having now re-read Punished by Rewards I don’t think Mr. Kohn does either, and that is the fact that Professor Deci asked students to work on these puzzles specifically because he thought the students would find them interesting. And they did find them interesting; we know this because he specifically asked them to rate how interested they were in doing the puzzles on a scale of 0 to 9, with 9 being “very interesting,” and session averages ranged from 7.25 to 8, which is to say that the students liked doing the puzzles a lot. It does seem as though it could be difficult to select a task that would have the right balance of children who find the task positive, neutral, and distasteful so you could really know that the change in interest was caused by the independent variable you’re trying to manipulate, rather than boredom that comes from doing the same thing over and over or even repetition that gets you into a groove of doing something so you get better at it and enjoy it more.


But if we bring this back to parenting, as Moyer does, we might ask ourselves when, as parents, we ever reward our child for doing something they already find interesting and want to do? And the answer is, of course, “never.” And it turns out that the vast majority of research on the effect of rewards on motivation to do a task are done with tasks that people – usually college students – find interesting and want to do. So that part is problematic.


The Scottish philosopher Alastair MacIntyre has addressed this issue in his most widely-read book, After Virtue. MacIntyre imagines that he knows a highly intelligent 7-year-old child, whom he wishes to teach chess, but the child has no desire to learn how to play chess. MacIntyre says he could pay the child with 50 cents worth of candy every week that the child comes to play chess with him, and that he will play in a way that makes it difficult but not impossible for the child to win, and if the child wins, they will get another 50 cents worth of candy. The child then plays, and plays to win – but the child is also motivated to cheat, and will cheat if it is possible. MacIntyre might hope that in playing, the child gains some skills that make the game of chess more interesting than it is when you really don’t know anything about chess, and that the child comes to want to play chess and to win for the satisfaction of knowing they have played well, in which case if they cheat, they will have cheated themselves rather than MacIntyre.


But Swarthmore University Professor Barry Schwartz, whom Mr. Kohn quotes quite a bit in Punished by Rewards, argues in a not-yet-published paper that he shared with me that instead of different types of motivation having an additive effect, where the candy might supplement whatever tiny bit of intrinsic motivation the child has to learn chess, the extrinsic motivators might actually crowd out the intrinsic ones, and “the very bribes used to help create a sense of telos [which is a Greek word roughly meaning “ends” or “goals”] of chess may prevent it from appearing. Given this possibility, it may be more promising to make the early steps toward proficiency in a complex practice as engaging as they can be, so that instrumental incentives are not required to keep the child engaged.” In other words, when you’re trying to engage your child in a complex activity that isn’t always a lot of fun until you know more about it – like reading, or playing the piano, Schwartz argues that we should try to make the practice itself more fun, rather than trying to bribe the child to do boring things.


But what if the activity we’re discussing isn’t reading or playing the piano, but throwing your dirty clothes in the hamper? Moyer argues with the often-stated view that if you start rewarding a child for doing something, you won’t be able to stop. She says that she rewarded her son for putting clothes in the hamper for a few weeks using a point system (where one point was worth one cent as well as a minute of screen time ) until it became a habit, and then she was able to stop rewarding him for doing that and move on to the next habit she wanted to instill and did not see any back-sliding in the clothes-on-the-floor department. She cites studies showing that rewards have been successfully used with non-compliant children, children with ADHD, and those with conduct disorder to shift their behavior, and that these behavior changes are persistent and ultimately replace negative behaviors. But perhaps we should wonder whether a measurable improvement in results in the clothes-on-the-floor department is really a goal that we want to pursue? Yes it makes our lives a bit easier because our child is cooperating with us without having to be asked every time, but is this really what’s best for the child?


The authors of books on parenting non-compliant children seem to be of the opinion that if a parent-child relationship is really not functioning at all well, the only thing that can and indeed should be done is to use rewards, with occasional additions of mild punishments if these are warranted to change the child’s behavior. Professor Alan Kazdin, Director of the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic and author of the book The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child states in his book that “repeated practice helps lock particular behaviors into your child’s repertoire of behaviors, a process that involves changes in the brain.” He argues that “You’re not ‘beating back’ your child by positively reinforcing good behavior. The child of a typical harried parent receives many more psychological nicks and gashes from inept parenting than he ever will from calm, systematic, effective parenting…of course we care about a child’s – and a parent’s – thoughts, feelings, self-confidence, and other important attributes that don’t fall under the category of behavior. But developing good behaviors can affect all of these…In homes where we change a child’s behavior, we find decreases in parental stress…and improvements in family relationships…”. So is it possible that a parent-child relationship has deteriorated so far that the only tool to save it, and perhaps even the best tool, is rewards?


Or is it possible that rather than using rewards, we should instead examine the relationship we have with our child and ask ourselves what we have done to contribute to the difficulty we are having with our child? As listener Jamie tells us, what if we thought about our child as a close friend for a minute, not in the sense of “I want to be my child’s best friend,” but in the sense of “how do I treat people I really care about?” In that case, if my relationship with my friend isn’t going well, I might ask myself if it’s my fault. If the answer is ‘yes’ (and if I’m the parent in a parent-child relationship then the answer is actually most likely going to be yes, that the fault lies with me rather than with my child, which I know is a bit of a revolutionary concept), then I might start thinking about how I can be a better friend. How can I listen and validate feelings more and let the other person feel heard without feeling judged or defensive? How can I understand and be gracious enough to hopefully be understood in return? What have I been doing that has been creating distance or making the other person not feel safe with me? Because if I were to not think these things but instead think that the best way to repair the relationship with my friend is going to be to start rewarding them for behaviors that work for me, then perhaps I’m actually a sociopath rather than a good friend. So what makes this type of relationship OK between a parent and child?


Moyer states that far from undermining parent-child relationships, rewards improve these relationships because the parent and child aren’t fighting so much any more. Her concluding argument seems to be that you don’t need to use rewards to be a good parent, but that if your alternatives are nagging or punishment, each of which can undermine parent-child relationships, then “you might need to rejigger your toolbox” – I’d certainly agree with that last part, but we’re going to look further at whether rewards are the natural way to rejigger that toolbox or whether there are potentially even more effective ways to do this. Perhaps instead of rewarding the child we might sit down and have a conversation with them that went something like: “hey, it feels to me like whenever you take your clothes off that they just land where you drop them rather than in the hamper, and then I have to come and pick up after you. It makes me feel really frustrated because I feel like I’m doing a lot of work around the house and this is a simple thing you could do to help me and you don’t seem to want to do it. Can you help me to understand more about why you don’t put your clothes in the hamper so we can come up with a solution that works for both of us?” But the idea of using rewards to improve a relationship just seems to be completely off-base. We can have this kind of conversation about solutions that work for both of us if our relationship is strong, but that avenue just isn’t open to us if it’s not and I just don’t see a way that rewarding a child for behaving a certain way is really a way to improve our relationship with them.


But when we’re talking about tasks like this that really are not intrinsically motivating for most of us, Schwartz states a substantial body of research suggests that using incentives, rather than providing additional motivation, external rewards actually undermine any motivation the person might have had to engage in the activity for the value and reward of doing the activity. Economists call this the “motivational crowding out effect” while psychologists call it the “overjustification effect” and it has been demonstrated across a range of experimental contexts, although Schwartz notes that the reliability and interpretation of these studies may be questionable. So the gist of the research seems to indicate that we can reward children for putting clothes in the hamper, but if we do this it is at least possible that they might lose whatever intrinsic motivation they had to do it in the first place and start doing it for solely extrinsically motivating reasons.


Something that I learned as I was researching this episode that I don’t think comes out in Mr. Kohn’s work, or Moyer’s article, or even my last episode on this topic is that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation aren’t really two sides of a coin. It’s not one or the other. So we’re clear, psychologists define intrinsic motivation as something that a person does for the sake of doing the thing itself, like children run and jump just because it feels good. But there are several kinds of extrinsic motivators, some of which actually come quite close to intrinsic motivation. Dr. Deci describes four levels of extrinsic motivation. The first is external regulation, where behavior is regulated by consequences, incentives, and the need for compliance with a requirement – if we apply this to Moyer’s example with her son, we might imagine him thinking “I’m going to put my clothes in the hamper because Mom says I can have a point if I do it.” But perhaps some days he feels that one minute of screen time isn’t actually that much, and so doesn’t put his clothes in the hamper that day.


The next of Dr. Deci’s four levels is introverted regulation, where compliance is driven by feelings of internal pressure – we might imagine Moyer’s son thinking “I’ll put my clothes in the hamper because Mom wants me to do it.” He’s more likely to do the task on a regular basis, but is still prone to lapses.


The third level is identified regulation, where the behavior becomes valued by the person themselves, so it becomes much more consistent, even though it is not fully integrated with their sense of self. Moyer’s son might think “I’m going to put my clothes in the hamper because it is important to Mom and because we all have our role to play in keeping the house running smoothly.”


The fourth level is integrated regulation, where the behavior becomes part of the person’s expression of self and identity because it is congruent with the person’s self-concept and values. So Moyer’s son might think “I’ll put my clothes in the hamper because it’s important to me, because I see myself as a person who contributes to the household.”


On a similar note, Dr. Schwartz describes the entirety of intrinsic and extrinsic motivator as a scale that can be moved along. He notes that the traditional definition of intrinsic motivation being something one does for pleasure as a definition that sets up the construct that it is simply not possible to be intrinsically motivated to do something that is not pleasurable, which he poetically calls an “untenable definitional state of affairs.” But his broader point is that for pretty much any activity that matters (that is, beyond the simplistic puzzles and drawings that researchers on this topic typically have subjects do), there can be a variety of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators present, and while we might think we know which one we are acting on when we try to motivate someone to do something, we might actually not know at all. Dr. Schwartz gives the example of a teacher who is motivated to support children’s learning, but also to advance in her career, to have a stable job with benefits and reasonable job security, the respect and admiration of parents, peers, and society at large, as well as short work days and long summer vacations (he almost sounds like a European talking, doesn’t he?). It can be difficult to know which of these factors is extrinsically and which is intrinsically motivated, and also possible that some are motivated by both.


It is unclear to me from the research whether a person can move themselves up the ladder of extrinsic motivation, so to speak, or along the scale of extrinsic to intrinsic motivation, although it seems as though Moyer’s son is moving from at least the first level to the second level of the ladder where he no longer needs rewarding and somehow, through the habit of doing it, he has internalized Mom’s rule about clothes going into hampers. But can he get to that third and even fourth level of extrinsic motivation by himself? Because it seems as though my own way of encouraging my daughter to put her clothes in the hamper gets us in at the third level, and maybe my daughter makes it to the fourth level: when she says “I don’t want to put my clothes in the hamper,” I say “Well, I’m happy to do it for you this time. I’d appreciate it if you would do it yourself next time because in this family we work together as a team and we all have to do our part to keep the household running.” I hope that over time, she sees herself as a person who makes useful contributions to the household, and that she views that as an important role and one she willingly takes on. She may never be intrinsically motivated to put her clothes in the hamper, but the act of putting the clothes in the hamper is not what is important to me, and is the point that I believe Moyer is missing. She confuses the behavior with what we ultimately want for our children, and what we ultimately want for our children is not just that they put their clothes in the hamper, but that they see themselves as a valued member of the household, who actively contributes even beyond putting his clothes in the hamper, because he sees it as important to him. Moyer gets her child to comply with her wishes, but because he is coerced into doing it. I want my daughter to put her clothes in the hamper, but I’m willing to wait, and even to do it for her, until she makes the choice to participate in household work because she sees it as valuable both to her and to the family.


So what I want to understand from Mr. Kohn is whether he thinks it’s possible that you can put a child into this process at the bottom, by bribing them to partake in household chores, and have them somehow come out of it at the top, seeing him or herself as a person who helps to keep a family unit humming along. To put it another way, Dr. Schwartz proposes that we stop talking about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and instead say internal and instrumental motivation. These terms acknowledge that the consequences of motivation matter (because as we grow older, we tend not to do activities solely because we find them enjoyable but also because we like to see improvements in our ability to do them), and focus on the relationship between the consequences that matter and the activities that produce them. The instrumentally motivated person wants to achieve a particular consequence and will choose the most efficient and convenient route to that consequence even if they don’t learn as much along the way. The internally motivated person cares about both the activity and the consequence as well as the relation between them.


Mr. Kohn has argued in his book The Myth of the Spoiled Child that just because motivation is internal, doesn’t mean it’s intrinsic or integrated or ideal – in some ways, it’s as if the punishments and rewards now live inside the child instead of outside. They might have internalized our commands to be polite or dutiful or helpful but they aren’t really moral agents in any meaningful sense because they haven’t chosen to do these things. They’ve internalized our values, rather than developed their own. The behaviorist, of course, sees no problem with this: as long as the behavior is what we want to see then it doesn’t really matter what’s going on between the ears. But for those of us who want our children to grow into assertive, independent thinkers, it’s pretty hard to say “you can be an assertive and independent thinker, but just don’t do it in my house.” If we want to raise a compliant adult, then using rewards seems like an effective way of doing that. If not…then perhaps we might want to rethink our approach.


For certain kinds of tasks, usually highly routinized ones, instrumental motivators (to use Schwartz’s language) may be as effective as internal ones at getting the job done, if you define “the job” within very narrow boundaries. But one set of researchers interviewed 28 hospital cleaners and found that they were clearly divided into two groups: the kind who didn’t really like cleaning, did exactly the work that was required and no more, and tried to reduce their interactions with others to the greatest extent possible. The other group saw cleaning as actively contributing toward patient wellbeing, liked their job, saw it as a skilled activity, and took many opportunities to do extra tasks to help out clerks and nurses. And isn’t this what we ultimately want our children to do? We don’t want them to just throw their own clothes in the hamper because we’ve bribed them to do it; we want them to see our clothes that didn’t quite make the hamper and throw those in as well, and on the way back to the living room see a pair of our partner’s shoes that they kicked off as they were bringing the groceries in and put those away too, right? My fear is that by rewarding our child to engage in a specific activity that they will engage in precisely that activity, and no more.


So, without further ado, please allow me to introduce Mr. Alfie Kohn, who writes and speaks widely on human behavior, education, and parenting. His bio on his website says that the most recent of his 14 books is called Schooling Beyond Measure…And other unorthodox essays about education, although I see a blog post from just a week ago announcing the publication of a 25th Anniversary addition of Punished by Rewards, the very book we’ve been discussing, which of course you should go out and buy as soon as you’ve listened to our conversation because hopefully by then it will be available in bookstores. He has been featured on hundreds of TV and radio programs, including the Today show and Oprah; he lectures for students, teachers, parents, corporations, and the occasional humble podcaster. I am beyond honored to introduce someone whose work I truly admire: Mr. Alfie Kohn.


Jen:                                     [04:40]                  Hello and welcome Mr Kohn.

Alfie Kohn:                        [04:45]                  Nice to be here!

Jen:                                     [04:46]                  So. All right, let’s get right into the nitty gritty of this. So we know that professor Edward Deci himself said in his meta-analysis of the research on the effect of rewards on intrinsic motivation, and I’m going to quote “That the field of inquiry has always been defined in terms of intrinsic motivation for interesting tasks and the undermining phenomenon [by which he means the undermining of intrinsic motivation by rewards] has always been specified as applying only to interesting tasks. In so far as with boring tasks, there’s littler no intrinsic motivation to undermine.” So are we not misdirected in eliminating rewards in an attempt to enhance our children’s intrinsic motivation to engage in these uninteresting tasks? It sort of seems as though professor DC is using a really narrow definition of intrinsic motivation and not the more nuanced definitions that we’ve discussed, leaving an option of someone becoming intrinsically motivated to do something.

Alfie Kohn:                        [05:44]                  Well, first of all, I think you’re plucking out Deci’s discussion of one aspect of the research literature that did indeed look at interesting tasks. And it certainly is true that the more interest you have in something, the farther there is for the interest to fall. But DC’s work overall is looking at the need to support people’s autonomy and meet their very basic needs to have some control over what they do. Which rewards tend to undermine regardless of the kind of tasks. Your listeners can look at dcs a own work to see that he’s interested in a lot more than just interesting tasks when he talks about intrinsic motivation. But speaking for myself and my view of this topic, the first thing I would point out is that a lot of studies have shown that while rewards reliably kill creativity, they also often caused people to do a poorer job at even routine tasks and uninteresting tasks like memorizing stuff.

Alfie Kohn:                        [07:01]                  So if you’re looking at the effect on the quality of people’s learning and work, and not only at their interest, you find that rewards have a negative effect there too, even on stuff that isn’t all that engaging. And research has also found that if you want to get people to do stuff like stop smoking or lose weight or go to the gym, which are not always intrinsically interesting. Things. Rewards at best are ineffective and sometimes counterproductive here too. But let’s take the argument another step. Sometimes people figure out interesting and creative ways of dealing with uninteresting tasks of making washing the dishes, for example, or mowing the lawn or something like that a little less boring. Rewards then would undermine those techniques that we come up with that are more creative because of their consistently negative effects on creativity and, uh, you know, in life.

Alfie Kohn:                        [08:10] Moreover, you can’t always surgically remove the interesting from the less interesting tasks. Often often there are different. ..a single task may have both interesting and uninteresting features to it. This is certainly true of many things that kids learn in school. So if you say, well, go ahead and treat them like pets by offering them a doggy biscuits. If the task is boring, what you’re going to end up doing is killing interest in the interesting stuff too. And one, one more response to all of this, which is our assumption that if there’s an uninteresting task and the person with more power says you have to do them well, that’s the end of that. And the rewards may be the most effective way to get them to do it. What that mostly does for parents, teachers and managers is spare us from having to ask the question, do people really have to do this or do they have to do this as often or in this way? In other words, it’s a deeply conservative premise that allows the people in power to continue that. The people with less power have to do whatever they’re told and so we might as well do rewards because it’s not intrinsically interesting. Instead of taking a step back to ask why do people have to do this stuff? Who says and who benefits?

Jen:                                     [09:42]                  Yeah, I think, and I think that has a whole host of implications in education that we could probably spend an hour discussing by themselves, but I want to stick really tightly with the example that Moyer gives them the article which is getting her son to put his clothes in the hamper. So is it, is what you’re saying, the idea that her son knows that he’s going to have to put his clothes in the hamper anyway, so we might as well take the M&M?

Alfie Kohn:                        [10:08]                  Well, first of all, as parents, and I speak as a parent twice over myself here too. Yeah. There are times when we just want to get kids to do what we’re asking them to do, but the better parents spend as much time as possible. Taking a step beyond that and not just looking at how do I get my kid to do what I’m telling him, like getting the clothes in the hamper and asking broader questions, which when I begin a talk with parents, a lecture or a workshop, I always ask, what are your long term goals for your children? How do you want them to turn out in the long run? What kind of people do you want them to be? And I get the same kind of answers everywhere. You know, like 80 percent of the answer is show up every time I asked the question across very diverse populations, we want our kids to be happy, to be ethical, to be caring and compassionate, to be independent, to be lifelong learners, curious, creative, that kind of thing.

Alfie Kohn:                        [11:11]                  So the more focused we are on obedience in this case, in the form of clothes in the hamper, the more likely we are going to be to use either bribes or threats, rewards or punishments because rewards like punishments can get one thing and one thing only, which is temporary compliance, but at an enormous cost. I mean, just to take one example here, we would like to have loving relationships with our children. We want the relationship to be a caring alliance. We want children to spend time with us when they have a choice, you know, we want there to be trust and respect in both directions. The more we rely on control-based mechanisms and make no mistakes, reward and praise are just as much about control as punishment is. Even if we dress it up with terms like positive reinforcement, it’s just sugar coated control.

Alfie Kohn:                        [12:22]                  The more we are straining and fraying the relationship and so yeah, you might get clothes in the hamper if you make the punishment severe enough for not doing it or the reward juicy enough for doing it, but among other things, you’re undermining your connection with your child. The way the child feels about you, nevermind about herself. In addition to the fact that even here we want kids to see that whatever the task is in the home in a broader context as how can I help to -how can I help? My mom was really busy so she doesn’t have to pick up my clothes. How can we make this household function more smoothly to everyone’s benefit? When you reward kids for doing something, you actively discouraged them from asking those broader questions. It’s just like you know, if you. If you reward a kid for reading a book when he doesn’t like to read, you actively discourage them from thinking about what might be interesting about reading that I haven’t seen and the question kids come to ask regardless of what kind of reward and the schedule it’s offered on and the task for which you’re offering it.

Alfie Kohn:                        [13:43]                  The question kids come to ask is what do they want me to do and what do I get for doing it? So it becomes a narrower and more self-interest focus as a result of any kind of rewards and the fact that you’re offering rewards for boring tasks doesn’t change that calculus at all.

Jen:                                     [14:07]                  Yeah, and so I think you’ve already answered my next question, but I just want to be crystal clear on this. So it seems as though Moyer’s argument is that by rewarding children in the short term, to get to do something you want them to do, it sort of helps them to develop a habit of doing the behavior, um, and that hopefully that’s gonna, push them up the curve from a seeing oneself as a valued contributor in a family perspective. But what I’m hearing for you is from you is that that’s just not possible, that you are undermining the child’s perspective as them seeing themselves as a valued contributor to the family by rewarding them to do the specific task that you want them to do.

Alfie Kohn:                        [14:46]                  That’s right. But even that criticism gives, gives too much credit to the behavior because even to say that it gets them in the habit of doing it and then you can fade out the reward and you don’t have to keep doing it. That’s really unrealistic. As soon as you introduce a reward as the reason for doing something, people become less committed to doing even that task. Let alone become committed to the broader goals that you and I are talking about that we want kids to begin to develop, they don’t even -as soon as the reward stops coming, research over and over and over again shows that people tend to revert to whatever they were doing before the rewards were happening. So, I mean, I’m not a big believer in habit for a lot of things. Habit by definition is unreflective behavior. And while yeah, there’s some things we don’t need to reflect on.

Alfie Kohn:                        [15:44] There’s a lot of stuff where we do want people to be, to use the term of the year, mindful about what they’re doing. And rewards and punishments don’t further even that, that’s why, you know, you find this research that shows that kids are given a reward for doing something and they do it to get the reward. You stop the reward: at best, they go back to the way they were doing things before. Sometimes things get worse. I mean, agile is just for my new edition of my book, I came across a study showing that one financial incentives were offered to doctors for engaging in a particular behavior in a hospital. They did it. And as soon as the incentive ended, so did that behavior. And that’s true even for doctors, it’s true for kids as well. You know – let me just put this in a slightly different perspective here too.

Alfie Kohn:                        [16:43]                  When I, when I started on this topic and wrote about this book 25 years ago, I was thinking about different kinds of motivation and if we did pass all the particulars that you’re reviewing with your listeners about Moyer in Deci and the conflicting claims about motivation. One very simple aspect of this is I don’t care how motivated kids are and I don’t think you should be either what matters is not how much motivation kids have to do something, whether it’s help or clean up or, or read. What we care about is the kind of motivation. And when you get down to it, what half a century of research has shown is that there are different kinds of motivation and the kind matters more than the amount. And when you get kids motivated to do things, to get a reward at best, it doesn’t help them develop the commitment, the intrinsic motivation at worst, this undermines the intrinsic motivation.

Alfie Kohn:                        [17:48]                  I mean this, if I had to summarize, you know, at least this chapter of my book, in a sentence, it would be the more you reward kids for doing something, the more they lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward, but some years after writing the first edition of the book, I realized that the problem with rewards and praise goes even deeper. It’s not just that intrinsic motivation is undermined, which is what Moyer is trying desperately to deny it, that rewards and praise offer conditional affection or acceptance. The message they send children is “Your approval, attention, acknowledgement and love have strings attached. You have to do this. To get that. You’ve got to put the clothes in the hamper. You’ve got to get good grades. You’ve got to be well behaved.

Alfie Kohn:                        [18:59]                  You’ve got to share your toys. You’ve got to try your best at sport. You’ve got to do something in order for me to get excited about you,” and that is the opposite of what children need to flourish, what they need from us as not just acceptance or love. It’s to be loved and accepted for who they are, not for what they do, and it’s not just that we have to believe we love them unconditionally. That’s irrelevant. It’s that they have to experience it that way, so rewards lose out in two ways because of the poverty of the behaviorist account of motivation and the fact that we’re actually killing the long-term stuff we’re trying to promote and because of what it’s doing to our relationship and their sense of being accepted.

Jen:                                     [19:57]                  It makes me wonder how much of the research on this is impacted by the fact that these are researchers that child doesn’t know who is asking them to do these things. I wonder how the results would be different if it was an in-home experiment where the parent was asking the child to do something.

Alfie Kohn:                        [20:14]                  Yeah, you’re not the first one to ask that question and that’s why it’s interesting. There’s been a shift and there’s been some research more recently that looks at the conditionality aspect, which is of course much more powerful. You know, who the, who the hell cares what this stranger in a laboratory, but where you really get the destructive relational and developmental effects on children from rewards like punishments is when kids need the acceptance from us and instead of getting unconditional support, they get “good job. I really liked the way you….”

Jen:                                     [20:57]                  Yep. Okay. So let’s go a bit further into the research because you, you’ve cited in a number of times, and I, I know that Moyer cites research as well and so Dr Judy Cameron, who I think is Professor Emerita now at University of Alberta has done a lot of work that contradicts the view of rewards as being harmful to children. And one way that we’ve talked about a number of times on the show that we can try and understand what the totality of the body of literature says on a topic is to conduct a Meta analysis which basically says if we add the results of all of the studies on this topic together, do we see an overall effect in one direction or another, and if so, how big is that effect? So Dr Deci and his colleagues, whom you quote extensively in the book and obviously here as well, did a Meta analysis of 128 studies on rewards after are punished by rewards was published in which he concluded that rewards significantly undermine free choice, intrinsic motivation, and some of the kinds of rewards as significantly and divine self reported interest as well.

Jen:                                     [21:58]                  And there were other types of detrimental impacts for other types of rewards. But Dr Cameron followed up with this with another Meta analysis and what she essentially said, well, yes, if you exclude certain studies and conflate the results of the rest and just the right way, then you will get the results that Dr Deci got and her analysis of 145 studies concluded that, and I’m going to quote rewards, do not have pervasive negative effects and coach when improvements are made to Deci’s categorizations and all the available studies are included. So Moyer is quoting Dr Cameron and support of her point and obviously you quote Deci and in support of yours. So given these warring matter and sees how can I and the listeners to our show, no for reasonably sure that rewards have a negative impact on our children.

Alfie Kohn:                        [22:46]                  I don’t know how to answer that question. For ordinary folks who don’t have this studies in front of them, I would have to go so deep into the weeds. Cameron cherry picks the research in support of a behaviorist conclusion that she had arrived at in advance. It’s so obvious, and Deci and his colleague Rich Ryan basically called her on it in their 1999 piece. And then subsequent responses when she wrote her first piece, coauthored it with students who had done it as a doctoral dissertation, the Journal of Education. Now the review of education research featured herpes with three responses to it in some detail. One was written by Deci and Ryan, one was written by Mark Lepper and the third was written by me where we go point by point showing that her conclusions aren’t supported by her own research. Just to take one example of this, Cameron argues that all the negative effects are limited to tangible rewards.

Alfie Kohn:                        [23:58] Whereas verbal rewards, which is what praise really is, are fine, but she only manages to twist that conclusion out by lumping together studies that define praise in different ways and conveniently excluding studies that found exactly the opposite that praise too is destructive. So if you’re really interested in what I hope is a reasonably accessible, a guide to this back and forth, um, I provided in my book, Punished by Rewards in the first afterward which was written in 1999, which has several pages taking apart Cameron’s claims, and then the new brand new addition to the book that just came out last month as a new 30-page afterward does not talk about Cameron, but what it does do is update the research to show that in the last 20 years we have still more studies with children and adults, males and females in the workplace, the classroom and the home all continuing to show that intrinsic motivation is what matters most and that intrinsic motivation is reliably undermined by the use of rewards in most situations.

Jen:                                     [25:25]                  Okay. Alright. That’s very helpful. And just as a side note, I looked on Amazon for the revised edition of your book and I couldn’t find it. Is it going to be there soon?

Alfie Kohn:                        [25:33]                  It was there when I checked a couple of weeks ago.

Jen:                                     [25:36]                  Oh really? Okay. I’ll have to search again.

Alfie Kohn:                        [25:41]                  Yeah, it should be there. If you, if you or your listeners go to my website, which is AlfieKohn.org, and go to Books and then Punished by Rewards that should click through to the proper page on Amazon.

Jen:                                     [25:57] Perfect. Okay. Yeah, I went straight to Amazon, so that’s a great tip. Thank you. So bringing this up to a higher level, I’m wondering why you think articles like Moyer’s gained so much currency with parents, why they ended up hanging around Facebook and my initial hypothesis is that rewards kind of seem to be an easy way to accomplish what we think we want, which is our child to just put their clothes in the gosh darn hamper compared to the much harder work of evaluating the kind of relationship we want to have with their child and how we should look to our own attitudes and behaviors rather than the so called problems that we see in our child’s attitudes and behaviors when we think something’s going wrong. But I’m curious to see your thoughts on that.

Alfie Kohn:                        [26:40]                  Yeah. I think the broader question is here, if the research so clearly and consistently shows that rewards like punishments gets in the way of what we want, can never buy us, as I said, anything beyond temporary compliance at a significant cost. Then the question isn’t just why we pluck out and retweet articles that say what we already believe, which is that confirmation bias that cuts across topics. Of course. “Look, look, I was right,” you know, but the broader and more interesting question I think is if rewards and punishments, ways of doing things to children as opposed to what in another book called Unconditional Parenting. I talk about as ways of working with children. If the doing to approach fails consistently and is disadvantageous, why the hell is it still so popular?

Alfie Kohn:                        [27:58]                  So one answer is that I think you’ve offered is because it’s easy to work with kids to think about long term goals to figure out what’s going on underneath the behavior and so on. It takes some time and some care and some talent and some courage because sometimes when kids don’t do what we want, the problem is not with the kid, with what we want, and that takes some gumption to ask that question of ourselves, but rewards and punishments take no care, no time, no talent, and above all, no courage. They’re just tricks to get mindless obedience with whatever we demand and boy is that convenient for us. So when people say, I want give me a practical parenting book, what they mean is a book that doesn’t challenge me to rethink my practices, rethink my premises, rethink the way I was raised, which can be really unsettling. I just want a recipe where I can be the least thoughtful parent and get the most obedience. And so yeah, it’s easy. A second reason I think that rewards continue to be popular is because rewards and punishments are widely accepted, if not expected in the culture we live in, which is a culture that doesn’t really value kids’ autonomy so much as kids who are merely well behaved and do what they’re told and if we don’t use rewards and punishments, if we tend to do more asking than telling, then we’re seen as permissive; were dismissed because the kid has us wrapped around her finger and so on, and this is the advice we hear from our our mother in law, from articles on sleep, from syndicated columns, from strangers on the street.

Alfie Kohn:                        [29:52]                  The constant push is not to do what’s in the child’s best interest to clamp down and show him who’s boss and rewards rather than punishments are a way by which we can feel better about bossing kids around then if we punish them. And another reason I think that rewards and punishments are popular is because they are in quotes “as effective” in the short run. If I give you a $100 right now to take off your shoes, you’d probably take off your shoes, so rewards work…or if I threatened you with a punishment. If I was in a situation to be able to do that, do this or I’m going to hurt you again, I could get what I want so we see the short term and superficial way that they get what we’re talking about, but when rewards and punishments not only don’t help in the long run, but make things worse in part because of the conditional acceptance that ruptures our relationship with kids and in part because of the way they undermine kids’ intrinsic motivation, we don’t see that dotted line connecting the advice we were given with the effects and sadly we may turn to more rewards or a clever strategy for for implementing them or harsher punishments.

Alfie Kohn:                        [31:26]                  The very thing that caused the problem. We’re all out of tricks. That’s all we know, so we go for more “doing to.” We could do this forever without seeing that. What we’re being advised to do is worsening the problem because we don’t take the step back and ask, well, the problem isn’t with how we’re doing it. The detail of the kind of reward a problem is with the fundamentally flawed theory of motivation and child development on which all rewards and consequences are based.

Jen:                                     [32:01]                  Okay. So let’s say we’re convinced about that. Now we’re convinced that rewards is not the way we want to go, but maybe we still kinda like the idea of our child putting their clothes in the hamper. What options do we have? I know you’ve written that we need to support children’s inclination to care and develop a pro-social orientation, but kind of nuts and bolts. How do we actually go about doing this?

Alfie Kohn:                        [32:25]                  Well, the pro-social orientation is a completely different question. If our goal is to help kids, I mean pro-social means caring, helping and sharing in general. Um, and by the two studies have found that children who are frequently rewarded or praised are less caring and helpful then their peers, presumably I think for two reasons, if I will go off on this brief tangent; one is that rewards our efforts to manipulate children and on some level, even little children figure that out and they don’t want you to be the boss of them. No human likes to feel controlled and manipulated. And so there’s this push back against whatever you were rewarded for doing, helping in this case, but it might be doing household chores in the other. That’s the focus that, that Deci and his colleagues have which has to do with control and autonomy.

Alfie Kohn:                        [33:30]                  But there’s another reason why I think rewards undermine interest in things, our commitment to them, which Mark Lepper and others have shown empirically, which is to be very simple about it. If you say to kids, do this and you’ll get that, you have devalued the “this.” If you, if you say to kids, here’s the reward you’ll get for helping out around the house, you are communicating to them that helping out around the house sucks. That’s why they have to bribe me to do it. So you have know if you say to your kid, do all your math homework and you can spend an extra an hour watching TV, you know, you just taught them that math is terrible. So when you do it with pro social actions help when you help tell, can you praise them? Oh, you’re so generous. I like the way you shared your toys or I’m glad you were looking out for me and you did what I asked.

Alfie Kohn:                        [34:37]                  What this does is to make kids less concerned about the impact of their actions on other people once you’ve taught them is the only reason to help is your going to get something for it. And that has implications for them being generous people with, with their peers and as grownups later. And it also has implications for helping out around the house. So doing nothing would be better than doing something harmful and bribes and threats are harmful. But as I argue and unconditional parenting, we don’t have to choose nothing because there’s a range of ways by which we can bring kids into a conversation about this. And by the way, when I offer in that book a series of general suggestions, not a recipe, you know, but a general guidelines for thinking about what is working with parenting look like. The very first one is what I mentioned a few minutes ago, which is start by questioning your request.

Alfie Kohn:                        [35:42]                  Why? If it’s causing this much tension, if it’s leading to a battle of wills, if it’s fraying your relationship, forget the God damn clothes in the hamper. I mean, get some perspective here. That’s the opposite of the advice you get from most parenting books, which again, begins from the premise that whatever you demand is legitimate. Yeah, just the question of this. But there are many ways by which, and I think in your introduction, you may have talked about some possibilities of the kinds of questions you could ask kids in a conversation about – for the sake of the argument, let’s assume that it matters whether the kid’s clothes in the hamper. I was certainly not on my top 50 list as a parent, but okay, let’s assume it matters. What’s the effect? Let’s talk about this, you know, it means that I have to pick up the clothes later, you know, and hurts my back.

Alfie Kohn:                        [36:43]                  It means more work for me because I’m already doing most of the laundry around here. What else could we do that makes it more likely for you to him to be able to do with what a fair hamper was over here rather than there? What if it wasn’t a hamper? It was a colorful box that you designed. I don’t know. I’m making this up. Or how about this? We divide up the tasks differently at the kid’s old enough. I’ll collect the clothes in the hamper, then you put them in the washing machine later. Does that work? But most of all what we’re doing is we’re saying, you know, let’s figure this out together. That’s respectful and it helps kids develop skills on it. Promotes social, moral and intellectual development all at the same time. None of that happens when you give the kid a dog biscuit for putting the clothes wear you want.

Jen:                                     [37:39]                  Yeah. Yeah. And just as a brief plug, a Unconditional Parenting is one of the books that has most profoundly shaped the way that I parent. I cannot overstate the importance of that book. Everything that listeners here in this show and to, to my relationship with my daughter in which we do do things like that and she’s four years old now and if we’re having some kind of problem like you know, she doesn’t want to go to bed at a certain time where we will say, okay, let’s talk about this tomorrow. And then when I pick her up from school, I say, remember we got to talk about the thing, whatever the thing was. And she said she, this is an actual example. She said to me, I’ve been thinking about it all day. Can we do X? And X was something I was perfectly willing to do. And I, I just got the warm and fuzzies. It was absolutely incredible.

Alfie Kohn:                        [38:31] They’re delighted to play usually to play a role in this. And it’s them to become thinkers and also they feel respected and trusted by you. Which is the opposite of how kids feel when they get a sticker or a gold star or an ice cream or a patronizing pat on the head for mindlessly complying with the adult authority. The point I want to make here though is that moving away from rewards and consequences, which we haven’t talked about much at all today, just calling it a consequence doesn’t make it any less punitive or damaging, but when you move away from this stuff, it’s not just a nicer, happier household. This “working with” approach works better, particularly at getting the stuff that matters in the long run. It’s not just more pleasant, it’s more effective by meaningful criteria. And even though it takes more time front-loaded to work things out with your daughter about how to solve this problem, you know, it may actually save time in the long run because remember, controlling parenting gets the temporary compliance sometimes, but it doesn’t solve the problem. It keeps popping back up again. Which is time consuming as well as a difficult.

Jen:                                     [39:51]                  Yeah. Okay. So let’s, let’s leave parents who have been using rewards for some time and who kind of don’t see a path forward to, to this really cool world some of us have discovered and are using where we work with our children to come up with solutions to problems. How do you get from being a parent who uses rewards, who has used rewards to the kind of parent who is moving beyond that? Should they just stop praising their child and you know, stop cold turkey? Or is this a conversation? And if so, what kind of conversation could it be?

Alfie Kohn:                        [40:28]                  Well, everything should be a conversation. I mean it took to put it in schematic terms. If we’re moving from doing to, to working with that very transition should not be done to the child. If you pull out, if you stop using rewards, including verbal rewards today, kids will not jump off the sofa and yell “Hooray! Now I’m intrinsically motivated!”

Jen:                                     [40:50]                  And I’m going to put my clothes in the hamper!

Alfie Kohn:                        [40:56]                  We might get some clues by thinking about why they won’t yell, Hooray first because he did it to them first. You were doing rewards and praise to them. Now you’re doing the abolition of rewards and praise to them. The second reason is because they may have grown addicted to rewards. To put it again in very simplistic terms, the more rewards go up, the more intrinsic motivation tends to decline and again, that is not limited just to interesting tasks. And so now intrinsic motivation has largely evaporated in the face of your stickers, stars, praise and so on. It has to be restored, revive, resuscitate it, and that may take some time. And the third reason they won’t just yell Hooray is because getting rid of the bad stuff is necessary but not sufficient. You also have to do the good stuff, which means getting better at what I’m calling the “working with” approach.

Alfie Kohn:                        [41:59]                  You know, for example, kids learn to make good decisions by making decisions not by following directions. So you have to help them and support them in making decisions, not just be less controlling. So it depends on the age of the child, I mean if you’ve already, if you have a, an infant and you’re already marinating the child in praise, good burping, you know, good swinging, you know, it’s gravity, for God’s sake; this knee-jerk need to judge children. And let me be very clear about that. Praise is not encouragement. Praise his judgement. It says you’ve approve of what you’ve done and that’s not what children need for healthy functioning. They need a lot of stuff, unconditional support. Also guidance and feedback and many things. What they don’t need is to be constantly evaluated. And the fact that it’s a positive judgment doesn’t change it at all.

Alfie Kohn:                        [43:01]                  That’s just about as bad as a negative judgment. So when you are able to do the stuff that helps, part of it depends on their age. You don’t have a conversation with the child is one, but you do have a conversation with a kid who’s three or four and you will have a very different conversation with a kid who’s nine or 10. And that may begin with something as simple as I heard this conversation on a podcast or on the radio that said that sometimes it’s not so great when you praise kids because it makes them feel weird or it makes them just want to get more praise. Has that ever happened to you? That’s just an example. You can start a conversation however you want and then you have to be prepared to do some real listening without getting defensive and bring kids in on the decision.

Alfie Kohn:                        [43:51]                  So if you are addicted to praise. And that’s really the problem. It’s not the kids need it. Instead we need to say it. We need to become more self conscious and introspective about why we’re doing it. If we’re lucky enough to have a co parent, we need to catch each other doing this stuff and to reflect together. If we’re on a Facebook group or you know, a group of parents who get together in person, you know, what a great way to support each other. Give each other moral support as well as practical suggestions. But bring the kid in on it too. Say “some time as I do this because I don’t know what else to do. If I ever do that, honey, will you, will you tell me because I don’t want to treat you like that. I don’t want to treat you like, like our puppy. ”

Jen:                                     [44:44]                  That takes some real courage from parents.

Alfie Kohn:                        [44:47]                  It sure does. But anybody who’s asking this question, who is responding to what we’re saying by going, Gulp, I’ve been doing exactly this for a long time. Does that mean I’m not a good mom? If you are, have the courage to ask that question. I have high confidence in your ability to improve as a parent. The people I’m worried about are the people who say, oh, that’s not realistic or it’s not realistic for my kid, you know, or I don’t know what his kids are like, oh, there are basically these were people who are just putting their hands over their ears and going, “I can’t hear this because it’s too threatening.” The alternative to praise is to take the example you asked about is not sullen silence, nor is it criticism, you know, one alternative is to just shut up and watch sometimes.

Alfie Kohn:                        [45:40]                  But another one is to simply describe what you’ve seen your kid do. I noticed you gave part of your Brownie to Barry and I know you like brownies. Why? How did you decide to do that? Or as I said to my daughter, um, because when she was quite young she loved to draw, you know, I would. The last thing I want to do with steal her pleasure by telling her how good I think she gives us an artist, you know? Then then the point isn’t for her to reflect on her drawing and get immersed in it. The point is to say, is this good? Did you like this? Now she’s interested in my face, not in her art, but what I might say is, hey, you’re drawing toes. How did you figure out how to draw toes? I don’t think you were doing those yesterday. That pulls her into the drawing. So describing what you see without judging and asking questions might be alternatives that make it easier than just saying nothing.

Jen:                                     [46:39]                  When you feel as though you have to say something. Exactly. Yeah. Okay. So that’s some really practical advice I think parents can use to move forward and even if it feels like a very strange thing to do to move away from a system that you’ve used for a number of years now, these are some tools that, that can potentially move you in that direction and just see how it goes and take, take small steps and work with your child to just have him what those steps are going to be in and how it feels like to take them.

Alfie Kohn:                        [47:11]                  And also to take on one task at a time. Because I mean if you really have trouble giving up the whole bribery approach that people like Moyer and behaviorists continue to desperately need to feel good about what they’re doing to their kids. So they construct and elaborate apparatus of rationalization. If you don’t think you can go from zero to 60, you know, start with the stuff that matters more. I mean, I hate sticker charts and, and praise and other rewards to toilet train to potty train kids. It’s manipulative and it’s it causes problems and it’s often done prematurely before they have a sphincter control. But you know what, that doesn’t bother me as much as rewarding kids or praising them for being generous or for reading. You know, the difference. I don’t care whether my kid develops a lifelong love of defection. Don’t think that’s going to happen, but I do very much care about my child being a generous person who loves to read. So the rule of thumb is the more you want your child to want to do something, the more urgent it is never to reward her for doing it. Start there.

Jen:                                     [48:29]                  Wow. And on that note, thank you so much for sharing all of this information and advice with us. It’s been truly such an honor to speak with you.

Alfie Kohn:                        [48:40]                  Well thank you. I appreciate your interest and your thorough research.

Jen:                                     [48:43]                  So listeners can purchase the 25th anniversary edition of Punished by Rewards by going to AlfieKohn.org and then going to the Books section and then that will link you to the Amazon page for the updated edition because Amazon is currently sending you to the old 1999 edition if you just search there. So I’m going to go ahead and do that right now and I suggest you guys do it too. And references for today’s episode can be found YourParentingMojo.com/Rewards



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Also published on Medium.


About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.

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