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.