Reading is for life, not just for rewards

December 2, 2015

As a parent I’ve always been aware of various schemes knocking around with the admirable intention of encouraging children to read. The Summer Reading Challenge is one example. I’ve never paid any attention to these schemes nor had my child participate in any of them. He likes reading anyway, loves going to the library to choose new books, so I’ve never felt the need to consider them.

a-kid-readingThis term my child’s school announced the new Bug Club scheme. This scheme, it seems, encourages children to read books online where they can then answer questions about them and gain rewards to go on to play games online. On the surface this might seem OK – today’s children are used to doing things online right? And anything that encourages them to read has to be good?

Well, possibly. But having this time been forced to give the matter some thought I find I am very uncomfortable with the whole thing. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I don’t like it.

Firstly, is it really a good thing to encourage children to see reading as something they do online? Don’t they spend enough time online already? And let’s not move to replace books with computers. There’ll always be something special about books, especially books that become a child’s favourite, with worn edges from being read again and again. Children can take books to bed, take them on long journeys, to sleepovers, and can snuggle down with mum or dad to read them together. Or are we now supposed to be snuggling down together with a tablet?

Secondly, the questions the children have to answer about the book they’ve just read seem to turn reading into a task and take away the joy. Presumably they’re in line with the national curriculum expectations as to what a child should be able to glean from reading a book, recognising alliteration, that sort of thing. But it seems to me to suck all the pleasure out of reading. It becomes another test, almost a box ticking exercise.

But my biggest bugbear by far is the rewards the children get when they’ve finished a book and answered all the questions. This is where I believe these schemes are the most flawed. Quite simply, rewarding children for something sends them the message that that something is a chore, and they deserve a reward for having trudged through it. It sends a message about what is or is not desirable or fun. In this case, we’re telling our children that it’s the computer games, and not the books, that are fun. Kids, well done for having completed this chore. As a reward you can now play computer games, because God forbid that you would actually want to spend your time reading another book.

Surely the reward should come from the pleasure of reading, the enjoyment of the story? That’s intrinsic motivation, and that’s what we want to foster in our children’s attitude to reading. Reading needs to be something children want to do for its own sake, not to answer a set of mundane government approved questions in order to gain some screen time, something I struggle enough to limit in our household already, thank you very much. We want our children to continue to read long after they’ve left school and the rewards have stopped coming.

Rewards provide extrinsic motivation which studies, for years, have repeatedly shown actually decreases intrinsic motivation. Alfie Kohn has written a great deal on the subject:

Scores of studies have found that offering people a reward for doing something (such as reading or helping) tends to reduce their interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. One reason for this effect, though not the only one, is that anything presented as a prerequisite for something else — a means to another end — comes to be seen as less desirable. The recipient of the reward figures, “If they have to bribe me to do this, it must be something I wouldn’t want to do.”” – from the article Do This and You’ll Get That. A Bad Way to Defend Good Programs.

“You may succeed in getting students to read a book by dangling a reward in front of them for doing so, but their interest in reading, per se, is likely to evaporate – or, in the case of kids who have little interest to begin with, is unlikely to take root — because you’ve sent the message that reading is something one wouldn’t want to do.” – from the article How to Create Nonreaders. Reflections on Motivation, Leaning and Sharing Power

I could go on.

My child’s school recently invited parents to an information evening about this new reading scheme. Looking at the presentation slides on their website, I notice a quote used on the last slide;

“Researchers have shown that, once social and economic factors are removed parental engagement is a more significant impact on attainment than almost everything else”.

I’m sure this is true, but this doesn’t mean I’m going to blindly engage with any crap the school throw at us, so I’m very sorry, but they won’t have my parental engagement with this scheme. I would like my child to continue reading what he likes, when he likes, and just because he likes. That’s what I believe will lead him to enjoy reading for life, not just for the sake of rewards.


Positive reinforcement? Gotcha!

August 4, 2014

There are many silly and misguided things in place at my child’s school in the quest to encourage desirable behaviour. There’s the enduringly popular classroom happy/sad face chart; public shaming made pretty for the teachers. And whenever I’m invited to attend an assembly I come out feeling distinctly nauseated. It’s just one reward after another. It’s all about rewards. Everything. They’re really working hard on raising the next generation of ‘What’s in it for me?’s. 

For example, each class gets points for ‘lining up nicely’ at playtime. Each week the points are totted up and a winner announced in assembly. An extra 5 minutes playtime is awarded to the winning class. Groan. I could write a separate post just on this, but the message going out about what’s desirable and what, by default, isn’t, is the first point that springs to mind. 

Then there’s the Star of the Week awards and Golden Book awards. Not sure of the difference between these awards, but in any case, whenever my child receives one he rarely knows what it was for, so how exactly does it encourage him? Encourage what

congratulationsWhich brings me to one of my favourites; the Gotcha Card. If a teacher notices a child behaving particularly well in the corridor they make a note of their name (secretly), and lo and behold, at some date in the future, the child receives, by surprise, a Gotcha Card in assembly. 

What a load of tosh. 

First, if we want to reinforce a particular behaviour with children we need to do so at the time. A child doesn’t have the capacity to reflect on or even remember what their behaviour was in the corridor at some unknown time in the past. Just as unrelated consequences (aka punishments) given out or enforced days after the offence are ineffective in stopping undesirable behaviour, so rewards given out after the fact are ineffective in promoting desirable behaviour. I’d have thought this was fairly obvious.

And no need for me to cover the bit about how extrinsic motivation decreases intrinsic motivation and actually makes the child less likely to repeat a particular behaviour, since in this case the child doesn’t even know what behaviour they’re supposed to be repeating.

Why not just comment on the child’s behaviour at the time, for Christ’s sake? Oh, of course, just as the happy/sad face chart has to be on public display, so do the Gotcha Cards. Presumably it’s supposed to encourage the other children to try harder, although they’re probably all left feeling as confused as the recipient as to what exactly needs to be done to earn this particular reward.

Just a nice little reward for the child? Yeah, I’m sure it gives them a brief feeling of gratification….but at the expense of all the other kids.

My child complained to me that he has never received a Gotcha Card, expressing feelings of injustice, since, he says, he always behaves well in the corridor.

“I know you do”, I replied. “Perhaps a teacher just hasn’t been there at the time to see that. You’ve just been unlucky.”

He didn’t buy this. “Lots of teachers have seen me” he says.

Of more concern to me are his evident feelings of futility, that whatever he does isn’t good enough, that he’s not a ‘good’ child, like the others getting those Gotcha Cards. He’s a failure.

Might as well give up and start running about screaming and doing cartwheels in the corridor. Sod it. 

So to whoever came up with this idea at my child’s school – Gotcha!

Gotcha coming up with yet another idiotic, misguided, poorly thought out scheme that will do more harm than good, will gratify the minority at the expense of the majority, and will achieve precisely nothing.

 

See my other posts for more about my views on rewards.


“Santa won’t come unless you’re good.” Taking bribes and threats to greater depths.

December 10, 2013

What’s wrong with a little bribery around Christmas time? Every parent does this, right? It might seem like a convenient and harmless way to get kids to comply without an all-out fight, but I think it’s bribes and threats in their lowest form. 

I don’t like bribery or rewards as a parenting tool at the best of times, for a number of reasons. One is that they teach children to focus on self-gain, to do things for the wrong reasons. I’d really like my child to tidy his room because he’s conscious that it’s the right thing to do, because his connection with me is strong enough that he wants to comply with my requests. Not because he’s rubbing his hands in glee at the thought of the pile of presents he’s going to get at Christmas. I don’t want to encourage a self-interested, ‘what’s in it for me’ attitude.

Normally I’d also point out that when we use rewards as a parenting tool we model bribery and manipulation, and yet, actually, that isn’t a problem in this case. No need to worry about that here since we’re not even bothering to at least be honest about what we’re doing. Instead, we stoop to greater depths and deviousness by hiding behind Santa. It’s his decision, not ours, as to whether or not our child has measured up to standard. How convenient? What a cop-out. 

santa with listThen there’s the use of the term ‘good’ when referring to a child or to their behaviour. It’s quite a broad term really, isn’t it? What does it really mean to our children, other than that when they’re not ‘good’ they are, by default, ‘bad’? Is this really what we want our children to believe? When my child makes a bad choice, loses control, or becomes disconnected, and behaves in ways that I don’t want him to behave, shaming him is really not helpful. Making him believe he is not ‘good enough’ for a visit from Santa isn’t going to make him feel great about himself or help him behave any differently. I don’t want to impose on him these feelings of conditional acceptance. Whatever his behaviour, he is always loved and loveable. 

Think about it. What a horrible message to send a child – that they are so bad that the jolly, generous, magical man who likes to give children presents will simply miss them out because they’re a bad person. What a horrible threat to make to a small child, whether empty or not. Christmas should be a magical time for children, and as such should not be poisoned by adults with their unkind threats and scare stories. Of course every child will be visited by Santa. It’s the season of goodwill, of love, of forgiveness. 

The thing is, children, especially those young enough to believe in Santa, don’t always have complete control over their behaviour, their impulses, or their feelings, and they don’t always make good choices. They’re still not terribly mature, you see. Behaviour is communicating a need. Even if it’s outright defiance, there’s still a message there, a need for connection. Simply trying to use Santa to control behaviour isn’t going to meet those needs, and isn’t going to foster that close connection of love and trust that is the real key to gaining genuine cooperation. 

Bribes and threats have no place in a loving, connected, respectful relationship. Instead of hiding behind Santa we need to be the parents our children need us to be, to understand and address their needs, to show them our gentle leadership, our ability to set empathetic limits and to accept the uncomfortable feelings that may arise in response to those limits. And above all, we need to send the message that they are loved unconditionally. However they might behave, Santa will visit no matter what.


The bad influence of school.

January 17, 2012

My child has now been at school for four months, meaning he is spending more time away from the family home than he has ever done before. This means, of course, that he is more prone to influences other than those he encounters at home.

Now I don’t mind him coming home announcing that he’s Darth Vader and I’m dead. I don’t mind that I’ve had my first ‘all the other children do’ (in this case in relation to bags of crisps in lunch boxes). But what I do mind very much is that last night he helped me tidy up some crayons, then asked me if he could have a reward for helping. Aaargh!! The horror, the horror!

If you haven’t already read them, my previous posts, “What’s wrong with rewards?” and “Sticker crazy!”, will fill you in on my position here. But to summarise, here are six reasons why I don’t use rewards:

1. Rewards teach a child to focus on self gain.

Quite simply, rewards encourage a child to think of things in terms of what’s in it for them – self interest.

2. Extrinsic motivation sabotages intrinsic motivation.
When we reward a child with motivators like chocolate, stickers or special outings, we increase their extrinsic motivation, and studies have shown that as this increases, intrinsic motivation decreases. Intrinsic motivation is the type we want them to have as it represents a true commitment to something, not a superficial interest merely as a means to an end.

3. Rewards encourage a child to focus on parental approval, not on the effect of their behaviour on others.
For example, when a child is rewarded for sharing, this shifts their focus to the approval of their parent, and away from the effect their behaviour has had on whoever they are sharing with.

4. Rewards model undesirable behaviour.
Let’s not kid ourselves, rewards are basically bribery. At any rate they represent someone using manipulative methods to produce a particular behaviour. This is not the type of behaviour I wish to model for my child.

5. Rewards create an environment of conditional acceptance.
It’s all very well telling ourselves how delighted our children are when they get a reward, but the flip side is how do they feel when they don’t? Like they’ve failed, let us down, aren’t good enough, and are unaccepted, unloved…..These are all possibilities I would put forward.

6. Rewards are often used to bring about a change to a child’s behaviour which benefits the adult, without addressing a child’s underlying need.
A parent might start a reward chart to try to encourage a child to, say, stay in bed. But a child’s behaviour is telling us something, expressing a need. A parent needs to get to the bottom of this and find ways to address it. Rewarding the problem away is simply brushing it under the carpet, to re-emerge in the form of another unwanted behaviour.

I always knew my child would be subject to these ill considered reward systems when he went to school, so this isn’t exactly a surprise. It just makes me sad to see my child, with his natural good nature and inclination to please, doing something with an ulterior motive like this.

I am still trying to come up with a good response, as I anticipate this will not be the last of such incidents.


Sticker crazy!

December 12, 2011

The world truly has gone sticker crazy.  My child comes home from school every day covered in the darned things. Whenever I ask him what they were for his answers range from a kind or helpful thing he did, to everyday things he did, to things he didn’t do.  Last week he got an especially large sticker for ‘looking after a child who had fallen over in the playground’. Sometimes he has a sticker for eating all his dinner (he gets a reward for eating when he’s hungry?!).

What bugs me is that my child is a sensitive boy, always very aware of any distress felt by others around him.  He just is, naturally.  Not because he’s been ‘encouraged’ to be, or ‘taught’ to be.  He sometimes has funny ways of showing it, but he just is.  I’m sure most children are if they’re left to their own devices and not tampered with by adults with stickers. It’s intrinsic, not something that can be taught.  So giving him a sticker for this particular trait is not only unnecessary, it could be counterproductive.

Alfie Kohn writes in his book “Unconditional Parenting”,

“….researchers have found that children who are rewarded for doing something nice are less likely to think of themselves as nice people.  Instead, they tend to attribute their behavior to the reward. Then, when there’s no longer a goody to be gained, they’re less likely to help than are kids who weren’t given a reward in the first place. They’re also less likely to help than they themselves used to be. After all, they’ve learned that the point of coming to someone’s aid is just to get a reward…..No wonder, then, that kids who are rewarded for being helpful end up being less helpful once the rewards stop coming.”

I’d hate to see my child’s natural sensitivity and kindness sabotaged by stickers.

My child has also always been a very good eater with a large appetite.  He will try just about anything (including sand, chalk and snow!). So why introduce rewards for something he’s happy to do anyway? Kohn goes on to write,

“Give children an unfamiliar beverage, and those who are offered a reward for drinking it will end up liking it less next week than kids who drank the same stuff without being offered a reward.”

Last week we went to the library. My child has always loved books. He loves getting new books. When we went to check out our selection we were greeted by a lady that asked if he’d like to join the ‘Bookstart Bear Club’.  Joining the club, which, by the way, I’m sure is an excellent initiative, at least in its objectives, means that my child will receive a stamp every time we take some books out of the library.  When he collects so many stamps he gets a certificate.  Oh, for God’s sake.

Yet again, we’re offering children rewards for something they’re happy to do anyway, risking devaluing the activity, as well as promoting self-interest.  Kohn refers to several studies that show the problems with this,

“….pay children for trying to solve a puzzle, and they’ll tend to stop playing with it after the experiment is over – while those who were paid nothing are apt to keep at it on their own time.”

Joan McCord writes in her study, “Questioning the Value of Punishment“,  in Social Problems, Vol 38, No 2.,

“Studies have demonstrated….that incentives larger than necessary to produce an activity sometimes result in devaluation of the activity being rewarded.”

Kohn concurs,

“The more that people are rewarded for doing something, the more likely they are to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward.”

McCord also goes on to write,

“When a reward is clearly a benefit to the person being promised the reward, rewarding teaches the child to value his or her own benefit.”

OK, I’m over analysing. Granted, much worse things could happen to my child at school than he be given stickers.  It’s just a bit of encouragement and praise?  Maybe, but aside from all the objections I have raised above, which I personally think are fairly compelling, sticker culture creates an environment of conditional approval.  I want my child to feel accepted and loved regardless of whether or not he measures up to adult standards.


What’s wrong with rewards?

September 15, 2011

Many parents find it hard to see what could possibly be wrong with using rewards, such as stickers or point systems, to encourage good behaviour in their children.  It is often referred to as ‘positive parenting’ – surely an accepted method of teaching children good behaviour, much better than punishments etc.

The fact is, rewards and punishments are really just two sides of the same coin; the parent provides an external motivator in order to manipulate the child into behaving the way they would like them to.

One major problem with rewards is that they provide extrinsic motivation.  This is the type of motivation that is unrelated to the behaviour, an external something that’s in it for the child.  I’ll tidy up so I can get that chocolate.  Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, comes from within.  I’ll tidy up because it’s good to have a tidy room; it saves toys from being broken or people from tripping over them.  Clearly the intrinsic motivation is the one we want our child to have.  Some may think that providing the extrinsic motivator of the chocolate initially will then lead to the intrinsic motivation eventually.  Wrong.  Numerous psychological studies have shown quite the opposite; the provision of extrinsic motivation actually reduces intrinsic motivation.  Any real commitment to the task or behaviour is obliterated by the external motivator.  The child does not learn to be considerate or responsible, they do not develop a long-term commitment to the task, they simply learn to do something out of self interest.

Other forms of bribery, such as promising a child an ice cream if they ‘behave’ at the dentist, fail to address a child’s fears and feelings.  It may feel like we’re just giving them a well earned treat, but really we’re just brushing an issue under the carpet.  They won’t stop being afraid of the dentist, they’ll just learn that their feelings are not valid or acceptable and should be suppressed.

Rewards may produce the desired behaviour in the short term, but they have not taught our children what we may have intended to teach them, they may have forced an underlying problem into another area, and they also teach children to do something only when there’s something in it for them, that bribery’s OK, and worst, that they are only accepted and loved when they behave the way we want them to.

Rewards don’t develop a healthy parent/child relationship.  Co-operation comes from a genuine bond of love, respect and trust.