Why rewards and punishment are both inherently destructive

A dear reader, Nadia, asked me to elaborate on my recent post about praising our children. I wrote:"Punishments teach children to fear adults and rewards teach them to please adults. People pleasing may make 'nice' children, but it may lead to succumbing to peer group pressure in the teenage years."

I was strongly influenced by writer and thinker Alfie Kohn a few years ago and just about ate up his book called 'Punished By Rewards'. There's no better way to explain his ideas than to quote from the man himself. These are little excerpts of this conversation he had with Ron Brandt, published in 1995. I recommend the whole article. There's a very good part in it about the usual way teachers get children to sit up straight. But for now, here are some excerpts:


"Both rewards and punishments, are ways of manipulating behavior that destroy the potential for real learning. Instead, he advocates providing an engaging curriculum and a caring atmosphere "so kids can act on their natural desire to find out."

Rewards and punishments are both ways of manipulating behavior. They are two forms of doing things to students.

Rewards are most damaging to interest when the task is already intrinsically motivating. That may be simply because there is that much more interest to lose when extrinsics are introduced; if you're doing something boring, your interest level may already be at rock bottom.

One of the most thoroughly researched findings in social psychology is that the more you reward someone for doing something, the less interest that person will tend to have in whatever he or she was rewarded to do.

There are at least 70 studies showing that extrinsic motivators— including A's, sometimes praise, and other rewards—are not merely ineffective over the long haul but counterproductive with respect to the things that concern us most: desire to learn, commitment to good values, and so on.

Another group of studies  shows that when people are offered a reward for doing a task that involves some degree of problem solving or creativity—or for doing it well—they will tend to do lower quality work than those offered no reward.

That seems so contrary to our everyday experience. Everybody is used to getting rewards and giving them. As educators we think it's only right to give rewards; kids who do good things deserve rewards.

What kids deserve is an engaging curriculum and a caring atmosphere so they can act on their natural desire to find out about stuff. No kid deserves to be manipulated with extrinsics so as to comply with what others want.

Indeed, one of the fundamental myths in this area is that it's possible to motivate somebody else. Whenever you see an article or a seminar called "How to Motivate Your Students," I recommend that you ignore it. You can't motivate another person, so framing the issue that way virtually guarantees the use of controlling devices.

Moreover, motivation is something that kids start out with. You don't have to bribe a young child to show you how she can count to a thousand million or decode signs on the highway. But research shows that by the middle—or certainly by the end—of elementary school, this intrinsic motivation starts to tail off sharply—by an extraordinary coincidence, around the time that grades have started to kick in.

Positive feedback that is perceived as information is not in itself destructive and indeed can be quite constructive, educationally speaking. And encouragement—helping people feel acknowledged so that their interest in a task is redoubled—is nota bad thing. But most praise given to children takes the form of a verbal reward,which can have the same destructive impact as other rewards: it feels controlling, it warps the relationship between the adult and the child—and between the child and his or her peers—and it undermines interest in the task itself.

On that point, I like to think about the questions that kids are encouraged to ask in different kinds of classrooms. In one dominated by consequences, kids are led to think, "What do they want me to do, and what will happen to me if I don't do it?" In a reward-oriented classroom, including one that is characterized by praise, kids are led to ask, "What do they want me to do, and what will I get for doing it?" Notice how fundamentally similar those two questions are and how radically different either one is from the questions, "What kind of person do I want to be?" or "What kind of classroom do we want to have?"

We all want to be appreciated, encouraged, and loved. The question is whether that need must take the form of what often looks like a patronizing pat on the head and saying "Good boy," to which I believe the most logical response is, "Woof!"

What these kids need is unconditional support and encouragement and love. Praise is not just different from that; it's the opposite of that. Praise is, "Jump through my hoops, and only then will I tell you what a great job you did and how proud I am of you." And that can be problematic. Of course, with positive feedback, it's a matter of nuance and emphasis and implementation. That is not the case with gold stars, candy bars, and A's, which I believe are inherently destructive. "