As a child I felt a deep discomfort with rewards, incentives, bribes and punishments. When rewarded, I felt like I was participating in some sort of dishonest scam, because I was either selling myself out or reaping benefits I didn't truly deserve. When punished I felt drawn into a power struggle, determined to win the next skirmish through deviousness or sheer force of will.
So as a new parent, I instinctively veered away from behaviourist approaches. During the early years I certainly wouldn't have been able to articulate in a philosophical sense what I was doing, but I knew that it felt right to wait for my newly-3-year-old to decide to use the toilet, rather than bribing her into it with jelly beans.
Then I read Alfie Kohn's book "Punished by Rewards". Kohn's extremely convincing book spelled it all out for me. It articulated why I'd felt an almost visceral aversion to rewards as a child, and why as a parent they just didn't sit right. Now I had a philosophy and a policy to go with my instincts. For many years I delightedly shared these ideas and worked at refining this style of educational and parenting guidance.
But now what? I've run up against a curious phenomenon that I can't figure out. I've got a child (Noah, 8) who has grown up in an environment that is virtually rewards-free. Most kids whose parents swear off rewards and incentives meet up with occasional reward systems in school or extra-curricular activities. Even Erin endured 2 years of getting treats every week for having logged 100 minutes of piano practising. Not Noah, though. Thanks to a combination of timing, parental design and blind luck, he's grown up 99.9% free of behavioural manipulators. I was firmly committed to non-coercive parenting by the time he was out of babyhood, and all of his extra-curricular activities have been in similar environments.
Yet lately he is asking for reward and incentive systems. When we discuss the state of his practising, ways to overcome the hurdles he's facing, he suggests I give him candy or money for his work. I voice my concern over rewards, enumerating through clear examples the types of potential downfalls I see in these situations. He still wants to try them. When he asked for a dollar for completing a week's worth of detailed practising work, I suggested that if he wanted more money, I could just increase his allowance. No, he said, he wanted the money contingent on his practising. What if he decided it was easier to busk at the market for 45 minutes and make $30 than practice 45 minutes a day for 30 weeks for the same financial reward, I asked. No, he'd still want the reward, he said. What if he was really rich, and a dollar didn't seem worth it any more? What if he had $10,000 in the bank? Surely a dollar wouldn't seem worth practising for? Sure it would, he said. What if he decided he wasn't particularly interested in money, or in buying anything, for a while? Wouldn't that make him feel like he didn't need to practice? He looked at me like I'd grown another head. Could I just give him a stack of loonies or a big box of candy and get him to dispense one to himself every week for the work he's done? I really would like to get myself out of the position of judge and enforcer, I said. I want to be his helper, not his boss, I explained. No, he told me -- someone else has to do the dispensing, and that would be the way I could best help. I suggested using more games and gimmicks, instead of rewards, to make his practising more palatable. He didn't think this was a good idea -- games are silly, and they take charge of the work and take up time. What about using a chart or a value-less token system to keep track of the work done? No, this wouldn't work, because "it has to be something I'd like to get."
I said I'd think about it some more, and we'd talk about it again. My inclination at this point is to agree to what he's asking for, on the assumption that the toxicity of rewards is the result mostly of their unilateral imposition by adults intent upon controlling the recipient. Of course there's the sticky issue of what I do with the other kids. If Noah's getting extra money or candy through his reward system, how do I prevent that from affecting their interest in a reward system? Do I just hand out candies to them? Do I give them the option of a reward system? What happens if Noah fails to 'earn' his reward? Do the girls get a dollar or a candy anyway? What a mess.