Saturday, August 13, 2005

Help me out here, Alfie Kohn

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.


  1. Anonymous6:59 am

    I agree with your thinking about rewards, but there may be another way to look at this issue. Some kids may see practice as their "work". In the world outside the home, "work" is paid for. My grown sons developed their work ethic in part through un-paid household chores, but also through the paid jobs they held in our family business.

    I would not want to get involved in rewarding kids for doing the basics in life, but in your case your son has specifically requested a reward for music practice. Would it be too much of a problem to give it a try for an agreed upon period of time, with the understanding that when that time was over a family meeting would be held to decide whether it had been positive or not?

    I think this would respect your son's autonomy and allow for a change back to the non-reward system if it becomes evident that things aren't working.

    In our family, we did the Pizza Hut "book-it" reward gimmick because my four younger girls kept talking about what their friends in school were doing. I told them why I didn't like "book-it", but I said "Let's try it for awhile." We tried for a year. It was o.k. We tried a second year and didn't use the coupons beyond the second month. The girls realized they didn't like Pizza Hut pizza as much as they thought they would. They recognized that the "free" pizzas really weren't free because they wanted breadsticks and drinks, which weren't included in the coupon and were quite pricey. They also realized they read just as much during the non book-it months as they did during the months the program covered. I think the net effect of the experiment was that the girls learned alot about how business promote themselves in schools and how rewards aren't necessary to get someone to do something they really want to do anyway.

    Now, my girls were and are constant readers. They keep notebooks where they list all the books they've read. They never go anyplace without a book to read. When we walk into a restaurant at Disneyworld, for example, they've got a book in their backpack to pull out and read. I knew that no incentive plan by any company was going to encourage my girls to read more than they were reading. But I thought it was worthwhile to listen to their request and give it a try.

    Elaine in Montana

  2. Thanks for your comments Elaine. As I say, my inclination is to do what he's asking, except that the situation is very much complicated by the fact that his sisters have never asked for any such thing, and would likely cry foul very loudly if they discovered he was getting some bonus they weren't. It's also complicated by the fact that I do not want my kids to see their music as "work" (i.e. an exchange of labour for money, a vocation) but as an "avocation", something done for enjoyment. And an additional factor is that, unlike your girls, who loved to read before, during and after their reward program, (and were therefore, IMO, relatively immune to the negative & manipulative effects of the program) my son does not love to practice. Instead he sees practising as a necessary, though often disliked, prerequisite for the development of his musical ability. I don't want to distract him through the basic difficulties he's having with his practising with rewards -- I want to solve those difficulties.

    It's comforting to hear of rewards systems that have been used successfully and without toxicity, but I'm still torn.

  3. interesting. since he does not love to practice and likely sees it as 'work' ', do you think this attitude can be changed? even if you make it fun, it is still 'practice', and some do not like it no matter what.

    i think it is quite an insight that he got -- that he needs the reward to keep on doing something that he does not like, yet knows he needs to do to have the ultimate reward of music and playing the instrument.

    it can also be an indication of a different mind set -- more 'economically' oriented; it can be fun in itself, to be getting paid. even for the jobs that we love, being paid, especially when it is not an rconomic necessity, is fun for some.

    since music is such a part of your family, could it be that there is an implicit pressure on him to practice / play? can he imagine not playing?

    what would he say if you offered a choice of no instrument vs. 'unrewarded' practice? would he be inclined to take a break?

    i feel the same about rewards, but in this case for me the biggest issue would be the family dynamics around the rewards. tough one.

    waiting for updates!

    btw, what about emailing alfie kohn? what WOULD he say??

  4. You could give him the reward, but only when he asks you for it rather than you monitoring when he's earned it and let the others have it anyway.

  5. Anka, he's been asked many times over if he'd like to take a break from piano and/or viola studies, and his answer is always an impassioned "No!" He's going to keep at both instruments no matter what, it seems.

    Haven't got my courage up to e-mail Alfie yet :-)


  6. Hi Heather, I think your proposed solution probably makes the most sense. I wonder whether their rewards should be contingent upon his, though. I can imagine his annoyance if they got the week's reward and he hadn't 'earned it', or sticky scenarios where they are wanting the reward for the week but aren't allowed to get it unless he has earned his, in which case I am just substituting coercive sibling interactions for coercive parenting. Fortunately the whole issue seems to be fading from the forefront of his mind in the past few days.



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