Last week I borrowed a book from the library called Unconditional Parenting; Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason, by Alfie Kohn. Even though I haven’t finished it, this book has proved to be a breakthrough in my outlook on parenting.

This book brings up many interesting parenting issues, but the one I’d like to discuss here is the practice of rewarding children for good behaviour. This has always sat uneasily with me, although I have never been able to articulate why. I am not a big fan of star charts and even the ‘merits’ that the children receive at school for doing good work, or helping another child, seem unnecessary.

But Mr Kohn goes a step further by putting praise into the same category as rewards. Telling your child ‘Good job!’ at every opportunity is giving the same signals as rewarding them with a treat or a sticker.

It is a parental instinct to praise a child when he or she accomplishes a difficult or new task. What mother or father doesn’t feel proud when their child takes her first steps or reads her first book? The trick is to do it in a balanced way and not make the child feel that she is only loved when she is successful. Show her your love when she falls over or when she muddles up her alphabet as well. We need to be involved and interested in the process.

For children the most important think in the world is the love they receive from their parents. If a child understands that she has to behave a certain way to gain that love, in the form of praise and rewards, then of course she will do all she can to feel that love and affection.

My Kohn explains that rewards don’t work in the long run because they make children act in a certain way for the wrong reasons. If a child knows she will be given a merit for helping another child in some way, then she is helping the child in order to receive that merit. She is not helping the child for the sake of being helpful. Once that reward is taken away, she is less likely to be motivated to help another child.

The key here is motivation. There is intrinsic motivation and external motivation. Intrinsic motivation means that you are motivated to do something for its own sake, whereas external motivation means you do something as a means to an end- in order to get a reward or avoid a punishment.

It is more complicated than that. The more often people are rewarded for doing something, the more likely they are to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. The external motivation erodes the intrinsic motivation. So the more we reward our children, the faster they will lose their own reasons for doing something, and they will lose interest in doing that task once the rewards have stopped.

We have to decide whether we just want obedient children or if we really want them to be independent, fulfilled, caring, confident individuals. According to Mr Kohn, we must think about how the children interpret out actions and ways of disciplining rather than just thinking the outcome we want.

So why not encourage your children by paying attention and show an interest in what they are doing rather than always rewarding them for their achievements? This will be a test for me, but I sincerely want my children to be caring, thoughtful people who do not need a reason to do something marvellous. Mr Kohn says: When unconditional love and genuine enthusiasm are always present, “Good job!” isn’t necessary; when they’re absent, “Good job!” won’t help.

2 comments

Lily Pang said... @ March 30, 2009 at 8:23 PM

Thank you for sharing! It's such a nice point.

Ya, I don't want my child to grow up and think always about rewards when they try to do something.

Lulu Kat said... @ April 1, 2009 at 5:42 AM

Makes sense to me. I'll give it go and I'll let you know how successful I was in 15 years.

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