Sunday, 22 January 2012

A personal note on rewards, praise and punishment...

Parenting is exciting. We knew that it would be. What we didn't know, was that it was not only going to be about parenting our son. We had no idea it would also be about parenting ourselves. 'Reparenting' ourselves. And getting to all those bits and pieces we put away and have kept hidden hoping they would not turn up, ever. Or to those bits and pieces that we put away, and hoped to return to later. Now, apparently, seems to be the time.

Same thing?

We have consciously chosen the life without punishments or rewards. Antek is now just over 20 months old. So far so good. No punishments of any kinds. No rewards and really working hard on 'acknowledging' rather than 'praising'. In other words: 'You did it by yourself' rather than 'Well done' or 'Good job'. We are very careful of all of this, because parenting Antek we have also realised he is not the only one going through this process. My husband was raised with punishments. I was raised with rewards and praise, lots of it. We have both found it really hard to know what we really want in life and even harder to go for it. He - because he is often scared he will not be good enough, or what will happen if he fails. I - because I am still fighting with the overwhelming need to please others, to have them looking at me when I succeed, to applause. We both fear failure, for seemingly different reasons. We are both working on understanding our dreams and following them, even if (or especially when?) other people think this is not what we should be doing. It is equally hard for both of us. So, in our house - no praise, no reward, no punishment. Or maybe it is all the same thing?

Rewards and punishments are not opposites at all; they are two sides of the same coin. And it is a coin that does not buy very much. (Alfie Kohn, 'Punished by Rewards')

When Pawel and I first started talking about it we didn't really understand what it meant. How can praise/ rewards and punishment be the same? But the more we talked the more we understood, that all this really is, is a way of controlling someone. If you're good, you get a cookie. If you're bad, you don't get to read a book with me. Now, I know that this is oversimplifying things, but... is it really all that different?

The need for praise

While a lot of people agree wholeheartedly on the 'no punishment' bit, it seems to be a bit more controversial to talk about 'no rewards' bit. It seems great to be telling your child how wonderful they are, how beautiful their picture is, how proud we are of them, And I used to agree - it boosts self-confidence. But I realised it does something more than that. I fight often now, years later, against looking for applause when I have achieved something. I have made decisions in my life that were not 'mine' really - they were made because they would get me approval, applause and, well, praise. And it gets worse - I have done things and made decisions because I knew they would get me some applause, without stopping to think if that was what I really believed in, or if that was what I really wanted to do. In other words, how I have felt about myself depended on other people's approval. I'm still working on it...

Antek was in the living room with Pawel the other day, both of them happily playing the djembe. It was great to watch them having so much fun together. Antek finally worked up the courage and started drumming on his own, smiling to himself. He looked up for a minute and saw me standing in the doorway. I looked at him, smiled back and (???) nodded my head as if approving of what he was doing. I have no idea where that came from. I know it was subtle and I should not overreact. But I also know that after that he kept looking up all the time, looking as if he wanted my approval. I went back to the kitchen. So, no 'good job' or 'well done' in our house.

Maybe we don't need it?

I have one more problem with rewards and praise - one that I see as contradicting what I believe to be essentially human nature. I believe human beings want to do things. I believe we want to play, learn, create. And we don't need a cookie to do that. In fact, a cookie might be in the way.

... our everyday practices rest on an implicit theory of human nature that fail to do us justice. When we repeatedly promise rewards to children for acting responsibly, or to students for making an effort to learn something new, or to employees for doing quality work, we are assuming that they could not or would not choose to act this way on their own. If the capacity for responsible action, the natural love of learning, and the desire to do good work are already part of who we are, then the tacit assumption to do the contrary can fairly be dehumanizing. (Alfie Kohn, 'Punished by Rewards')

I have seen Antek over and over trying to achieve something, leaving it, then going back. The block does not fit in the box. He looks up at me, goes away then comes back, tries again and again and again. When he finally gets the block in the box he is so happy, there is nothing more rewarding than that. He smiles to himself, sometimes says something, or even laughs out loud. Sometimes he looks at me. 'You put the block in the box' I say. He nods and walks away happy. 'Fantastic, I'm so proud of you' I think. 

And on the ridiculous side of things...

But also, with all the praise we hear, is it not becoming a bit meaningless? A bit worn-out? Does it not also sound like that to children after they heard it seventeen times that day? And then I wonder what happens - do they (or rather, do we) just become immune to it? Or do they need it more and more...

We spent Christmas in Poland, with our families, where everything Antek did was 'fantastic', 'wonderful' or 'great'. Everything he did ended up with a round of applause. We are back to our daily lives now, and we had to work hard for Antek to get back to his routine. And to doing things just because he likes doing them, not because someone will clap. Sometimes we had to look away. 'Great sitting' (hmm?), 'Wow, look at you walking, wonderful!' (huh?), 'Good job eating dinner!' (this one was actually a little worrying). The only thing Antek did that received no applause was passing gas. Still waiting for that one, though :)