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 :)


  1. Oh, we applaud the gas in our house! Ania, thank you so much for sharing all of these astute (yes, that's a compliment) insights. It's important for us to truly understand the effects of praise and rewards and this is the first article I've read that really explores them. Personally, I've experienced a similar struggle to yours, so I can definitely relate.

    1. Janet, thank you, as always. And thank you for sharing this one - it was not an easy one to write, I have to say. Very very interesting though... in a lot of different ways.

  2. Great article! I am of similar thinking on this, but we don't have children of our own yet. My in-laws, my mother in law especially, praises EVERY little thing that our nieces do. Over the top praising of them. How do you suggest addressing this with her since they will (I'm sure) be visiting much more often once we do have children?

    1. Thank you for reading! As for your question - I honestly don't know. And I aways wonder where this need to praise comes from. Have a look at the link Aunt Annie posted - I have just read it, may be helpful to you?

  3. Having just brought our baby girl home, I'm already curbing my desire to tell her how pretty she is and "good job" for finishing that bottle (or breastfeeding well). It is a difficult thing to do, being so ingrained in ourselves because of our culture and how we were raised.

    Kudos to you for going for it and good luck to us all!

    1. Thanks for joining in. Yep, good luck to us all ;) But also - enjoy every moment of it!!! (whenever I have the urge to say something like this I always imagine a situation where the other person is not my son, but my husband. The ridiculousness of it makes me stop, but also makes me laugh - both great reactions ;)

  4. Great article; like you, I was brought up to lots of applause and I still struggle with the need for it. Will share.

    I have a blog post that might help Anonymous with the in-laws:

    I wrote it after Janet Lansbury had a similar inquiry. It's clearly a very common problem!

    1. Thank You, Aunt Annie. This is a great post, thank you for posting the link - is something I actually am going to find very very useful... :)

  5. Ania, thank you for this article. These wise and profound way of understanding parenting gives me motivation to revise constantly my idea about being a mom. As a parent I`m positive that the priority is to understand our own problems, difficulties just to avoid influencing our child. I was always afraid that I will make so many mistakes, besides those which have made my own parents. Reading your post brought a great enlighment, it was unpleasant to realise things but at the same time very good.I am struggling all the time, trying to listen my son and observe without judging, my own story and experience as a child is making this very hard work. Fortunately there are some great sources of knowledge, like your blog (!) which are giving a lor of hope and support. Dziekuje Aniu. Szkoda, ze tak malo tekstow z tak waznymi informacjami, publikowanych jest po polsku.

    1. Malgo, Malgo, szkoda, ale jest nadzieja, ze bedzie wiecej (praca pomalutku, ale wre :) Dzieki, ze sie zatrzymalas i poczytalas - i to chyba jest tak, ze najważniejsze jest także zawalczyć z włąsnym poczuciem winy :) Pamiętaj zawsze, że jesteś świetną mamą i to jest najważniejsze. Ale jesteś tylko człowiekem, tak jak każdy i to też jest ważne - w końcu Twoje dziecko ma żyć między ludźmi :):) buziaki!

  6. Hi Anja, I agree with this way of parenting and have worked really hard to acknowledge and discuss and negotiate rather than reward and punish.

    One thing that I have realised though is that children also need us to delight in them for their very existence and not delight only in their achievements.

    Parenting perfection is not required. Mostly good or good enough is all our children require of us.

    If I stuff up, I always say to myself 'what's the kindest thing I can say to myself right now?'. That's the lesson I want to teach my son, that we make mistakes but how do we move forward from them. I was punished harshly as a child and I have really struggled with self worth, criticism and abandonment, so I am a lot kinder to myself these days, and much more forgiving.

    I think if I was going to make a parenting mistake, I would prefer a nod of my head rather than a smack on my child's hand.

    Great article, great reminder. Thanks.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Clare,

      Thank you for reading and commenting. I so appreciate your note for a lot of reasons. First of all, thank you for this: 'children also need us to delight in them for their very existence and not delight only in their achievements'. Very true. I agree in 100%. I think not only children need this :)

      Which leads me to your next point - yes, good enough is good enough. And yes, there will be mistakes. And yes, if we cannot be kind to ourselves when we make mistakes, how can we be kind to our children when they make mistakes....

      thank you - food for thought in such a short comment...

  7. Hiya :) I totally agree with you. I hate hearing the 'good girl/boy's and the 'well done's all the beeping time. And if they annoy me after 2mins of being in the same vicinity as those parents how do the kids feel being with them all day, every day? ><

    When my babe does something amazing we say yaaay and maybe we clap (we also do this when we adults do something cool.. :) ) When she (17months old) achieves something we say the words: eg 'good safe' (when she first started walking and stumbled but caught herself) or that's right, that shape goes in there (when playing with the shape sorter. I believe she gets more from that then us praising her eating/walking/clapping/breathing.

    I wish I could tell others to stop doing this when we're around. Our local SureStart does it and it annoys me. Sometimes the kids just stand and smile at something and someone goes 'Well done xy' O_O

    Anyway, sorry for the novel. Great post :)


  8. Hi Nev,

    Thanks for reading and thanks for taking the time to comment. It is so cool that you respond to your little one as you would to adults when they do something cool :) I have always found that helpful - being able to stop and think what my reaction would be if this was another adult. It is interesting how we react differently, and what motivates these reactions.

    Thanks again!!

  9. Hi Anna,

    I could actually hear you saying this! It made me miss your friendship and insight in NZ.
    This post is dead on and my colleague Ania has been using Kohn's work to support her in parenting her son for years.
    Last year I was babysitting for children I know well and was eating my dinner I had brought with me as they they ate their dinner. At the end of my meal one of the children said to me "you did SO well with your dinner." I was immediately embarrassed, but then this made me reflect on how differently we speak to children compared to how we speak to adults. How it is so important that children eat very well, but that adults must be careful in what they eat, and how others see them eating.

    It is interesting stuff this punishment and reward. I love Edward L. Deci's book Why we do what we do. I wish he had related it to younger children though!

  10. Are punishment and praise the two sides of the same coin? They are.
    Should they be avoided when raising child? Not at all.

    A child needs to know what is right and what is wrong and needs his/her parents to tell them that.
    Also, a child needs to feel with the parent, feel that the parent is happy or unhappy with given behavior. Here comes the praise / scolding.
    When learning to do stuff with wooden shapes and sorter it is better to show and tell the child we're happy and proud with putting shapes in the shape sorter as well as show and tell that we do not approve the toys being thrown at the cat or the mother.

    I think the child needs to hear 'nice job with the sorter' as well as 'we don't throw the blocks at the pussy, throwing blocks is not cool, mommy doesn't like it'. We can of course leave the child to figure out by himself the social rules of blocks management, only nodding or frowning occasionally when we can't stand the pain, but that does not help child to develop communication skills. On the contrary - without verbal confirmation the child will not learn to read meaning to many messages and will not learn to praise or scold himself.

    You claim that parental approval made you outer-contained. I daresay without you parents' approval or your partner's parents's criticism you'd end up more or less the same. And without being praised as an adult you'd go not too far anyway.

    Why? Well, imagine your son at work. Imagine he's sat at his desk and told to figure out the shapes. He probably will, with time, but do you really think any employer has that much time to spare instead of giving new staff a decent training? Not to mention eliminating obvious and unnecessary errors made in the process of figuring out.

    So your son has this job, he has figured out what to do and as a brilliant, willing to learn and do his best kind of guy he sits to it. And year after year after year he does his job without ever getting a pay rise; no awards, no public handshake with the industry gurus, never getting any back slap, never hears hey mate, good job with the brain you operated on? How long do you think will take before he cracks?

    In other words, as adults we do what we are required to do at our jobs. But it is praise and rewards that make us do our real best and push us higher and further.

    So I tell my son I'm proud and happy with his achievements. Yet, I do not praise his eating his dinner or passing gas ;)
    Also I do agree that too much of praise can make one constantly needing confirmation and applause.

    1. Hi Gladys,

      Thanks for stopping by and reading, and thanks for an interesting comment.

      You say that 'a child needs to feel what is right and what is wrong' and I wholeheartedly agree. I agree the child needs to learn this, and I agree that we are there to guide the child. Though I do not believe that our judgment in what is wrong needs necessarily to result in punishing the child.

      I am not suggesting we leave the child to 'figure out by himself' as you say. I think there are more possibilities than just 'good job' or saying nothing. I think acknowledgment goes a long way ('You put the blocks in there all by yourself' rather than 'good job' - maybe a subtle difference, but I believe there is one), not only in helping the child develop communication skills. If I implied anywhere that I believe we should just ignore any kind of behaviour, good or bad, that was not my intent (though I hope that is not how most people have read the post).

      'You claim that parental approval made you outer-contained. I daresay without you parents' approval or your partner's parents's criticism you'd end up more or less the same.' - That, I guess, we'll never know. Whether I'd go not too far without being praised as an adult ...

      Whether or not it is indeed praise and rewards that push us higher and further might also depend, wouldn't you agree? I tend to believe that what most effectively pushes us further is pride in your own work (pride you take in it), and a motivation that is a bit deeper than just that one coming from 'good job's.

      There have also been several studies that have shown that children who are praised (and by that I don't mean acknowledgment, but the 'good job' type of praise) lose motivation or interest in the task faster. I believe this also shows that it might not necessarily be praise and rewards that push us further - especially in childhood. It might be that we genuinely want to learn (or work). And that in itself is a great reward.