last week was the start of school and either the first or second day, the only thing he could tell me was he got 5 tickets for "being good." red flag. usually "being good" in children means being complacient/quiet/convienent automatons. and if he got 15 by friday he could get a treasure out of the treasure box. oh lord. but i said "oh. ok" and dropped it for more important school day activities.
then friday rolls around. buddyone was very excited to get his treasure - a blue jelly pencil grip. he got 21 tickets and husband asked if he got to keep them. no. that's not fair, husband exclaims. drop it, i tell husband. to buddyone, that's a really neat treasure; im glad you like it. and off we go out to jumping party for one last time on our summer pass.
later that evening, buddyone's going to the bathroom and im talking to him, trying to get a few more details about this token economy system. the following paraphrased exchange ensues. i have omitted repeated paths of inquiry.
me: do you like your pencil grip?
buddyone (b1): yep
me: did everyone get to pick a treasure?
b1: no, M (a little girl) didnt get enough tickets
me: she didnt get enough?
b1: yeah. she didnt listen.
me: oh. that's sad. you had extras, could you have shared yours?
b1: but then i wouldn't get a treasure
me: was she sad she didnt get a treasure?
b1: no (comment: maybe she's just a resilient gal, or didnt show her dissapointment but i personally know of no child that is fine being left out while everyone around them is getting something.)
me: but you had 6 extra (break for mini math lesson).
b1: we can't. that's against the rules.
me: (trying a new path) could you help M to listen
b1: but then i wont get any tickets
me: when does M not listen?
b1: she wiggles during nap time.
(this part is extremely ironic because buddyone is an insufferable wiggler in general, but especially at bedtime. talks a lot, too.)
me: maybe she's not tired
b1: no. she just wont listen and then everyone will start talking and wiggling.
me: did you fall asleep?
me: did other people start talking?
me: than she didnt disrupt anyone.
b1: augh! i dont wanna talk about this anymore.
there was more, but it was of the "second verse, same as the first" variety.
M and buddyone seem cut from the same cloth. they could be best of friends.
ok, you are saying. what the heck was the point of that and who the heck is alfie kohn? in a nutshell, the exchange i had with my son is the quintessential example of why rewards, praise, token economies, and other crap doesnt work. and alfie kohn is an educator and writer and formally trained in psychology. he writes about education and parenting in his fabulous book Punished by Rewards he takes a hard look at what is considered vital parenting (and adult management) practices.
in the most basic form, rewards/praise/bribes take kids in a classroom and turn them into pigeons in a skinner box. do this, get that. dont do this, dont get that. i swear, when i here parents saying "good job/boy/girl" it sounds like they are talking to a pet. and big affectionate responses work. for animals. you wanna train your dog to stop barking at the mail carrier, by all means whip out the treats and belly rubs. but for your kids? come on! have a little more respect for yourself and your child.
in PbR, kohn gives five main reasons why rewards dont work (in any meaningful way). they are:
- Rewards Punish
- Rewards Rupture Relationships
- Rewards Ignore Reasons
- Rewards Discourage Risk-taking
- Rewards change how people feel about what they are doing
Rewards Punish - This boils down to basic control. do this, get that. dont do this, dont get that. Kohn also shows evidence of people who use rewards often also show a greater tendency to use punishments.
Rewards rupture Relationships - rewards rarely lead to collaboration and instead foster jealousy and strife between parties as they work for a single prize or "if we are all good" prize and inevitably some one isnt. Later in the book Kohn also mentions that rewards can polarise a person's view about their abilities, based on rewards received, and other's abilities, based on rewards received.
Rewards Ignore Reasons - Some people are not good test takers, other's arent interested in the topic at hand, other's have a higher energy level. (i would hate to think i couldnt have gotten my job several years ago because i had a horrible sinus infection and couldnt type "Egyptian" at 80wpm) this doesnt make them stupid, ill-tempered, hyper-active. but when rewards are based only for limited parameters, those who cant obtain them for whatever reason, are left out.
Rewards Discourage Risk-Taking - Kohn finds study after study showing that people will do exactly the "this" to get "that" and little more. people will often go out of their way to find the easiest "this" to get "that."
And lastly rewards ultimately kill any joy in doing the "this." Study after study has shown the more people are rewarded for doing something, the less actual interest they have in it. way to take learning and being a good citizen and strangling all meaning out of it.
really, the book is fascinating. It's a scholarly read but well worth plugging through. highly recommended if you are a parent, work with children or "manage" adults.
So let's recap. Can you spot all the "reward fail" in the exchange between me and my son?
- because of the token economy, the tickets/rewards were some of the most enthusiastic things i heard from my son about his first week of school. not friends names or what he did at recess.
- he was unwilling to help a friend for fear of losing rewards/was not able to help a friend with his extra tickets.
- a child was forced to sleep/punished for inability to sleep simply because it was naptime and they werent tired
- he "assumed the worst" based on M's inability to sleep during the scheduled time and couldnt think of a reason why she wouldnt be sleepy.