What’s In It For Me -itis: Problems with Rewards and Punishment


One of those times I just need to vent and because it is parenting related you all get the brunt of it! ūüôā I am so tired of our society incessantly rewarding children.

Clean your room for a week…. new toy! Read 10 books…. get a little pizza! Everyone in the class behaves for a month…. extra recess! Sell a certain number of magazines for a fundraiser… get a pile of crappy plastic toys! Honor society kids get together to do something for residents of a nursing home… go to a movie afterwards! Bring cans of food to school to donate to a food pantry… class who brings the most gets soda and popcorn on Friday! Get good grades… get $10 per “A” and $5 per “B”.

And it goes on and on and on…

The problem with it is that we’re teaching our kids things that we don’t mean to teach them. Things like:
1. What’s in it for me? vs. altruism
2. What’s in it for me? vs. doing it because it’s the right thing to do
3. What’s in it for me? vs. feeling proud of one’s accomplishments
4. What’s in it for me? vs. enjoying the activity itself
5. What’s in it for me? vs. working together
6. ¬†What’s in it for me? vs. focus on the meaning of the activity

Just this week I heard a story about how rewarding children backfired. ¬†A school psychologist took over lunch room duty for a school’s kindergarten lunch shift. ¬†Previously, lunchroom aides set and maintained simple expectations (like take your tray to the kitchen when done, pick up your trash, stay in your seat, etc…) ¬†Lunch was orderly, contained and a non-issue. ¬†For whatever reason, the school psychologist added a reward system to reinforce the expectations. ¬†The class who is the quietest gets a point. ¬†If he sees someone pick up their trash, their team gets a point. ¬†At the end of the week the team/class with the most points gets a treat.

Two things have been noted to happen. ¬†First of all, children have started purposely leaving trash at their tables so that they can go back, pick it up and get a point. ¬†Secondly, at the end of this past week, the winning class was heard to not only brag about how their team was the best, but to also make comments to children in the losing class like, “You are losers!” ¬†or worse, “We hate you guys.”

And for what? ¬†What is the benefit? ¬†I can’t see one.

Finally, another pet peeve related to parenting or caregiving so focused on rewards and punishments…. When rewards/punishments are so commonly used, many children will start asking, “If I don’t do it, then what happens?” ¬†because they are weighing the cost of misbehaving vs. behaving. ¬†It can leave parental competency in shreds!

The parenting philosophies that incorporate rewards or punishments (ie, behavioral modification) are so deeply ingrained in our society that it really requires a paradigm shift to even think about another way. ¬†If you’re interested in reading more, check out the book ¬†Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn. ¬† It’s not a new book, but makes some really important points that I think we at least need to consider.

Heart of the Matter Seminars

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One Response to “What’s In It For Me -itis: Problems with Rewards and Punishment”

  1. Julie Miller Says:

    I agree! Another good book is “Discipline Without Stress, Punishment or Rewards” by Marvin Marshall. It has been put to use in several school districts.

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