SRQ Magazine | May 2016
It's a typical school morning and already I've lost count of the number of times I hear adults tell children “Good job.” I’m standing in the school’s morning drop-off area. Your car pulls up and your child busily unbuckles her seat belt, collects her lunch bag and steps out of the car. While she manages all of this you say, “Good job! I love you!” Well after all, who doesn’t feel enormous pride and love for their child? Who doesn’t want to send their child off with a positive affirmation? And when your child is successful, what’s wrong with praise?
Despite our common sense beliefs, praised children (and adults) do less well than their intrinsically motivated peers. In fact, a diet of external motivation results in the opposite of what we intended. Instead of sustained academic achievement, praised children produce lower test results. Instead of compliance, praised children may act out with resentment and exhibit behavioral issues. And it’s no different for adults. In his book The Whole Mind, Daniel Pink summarizes the situation like this: Too many organizations—not just companies, but governments and nonprofits as well—still operate from assumptions about human potential and individual performance that are outdated, unexamined and rooted more in folklore than science. They continue to pursue practices such as short-term incentive plans and pay-for-performance schemes in the face of mounting evidence that such measures usually don’t work and often do harm. Worse, these practices have infiltrated our schools, where we ply our future workforce with iPods, cash and pizza coupons to “incentivize” them to learn. Something has gone wrong.
What children need most is unconditional parenting and opportunities to develop their intrinsic motivation. Instead of praise, we should encourage; instead of praise, we should provide gratitude. For several reasons, this is proving really hard to do. First, external praise and reward is imbedded into our cultural being. Praising children begins at a surprisingly early age, and its generic form is “Good job!” When very young, children are praised for smiling, holding a spoon, using the spoon, holding a cup and drinking from the cup. Second, from continually hearing praise, we just “know” praise works just as we know its opposite, punishment and taking punitive action, works too. After all, we were raised with praise and with punishment and it’s very likely that we will actively seek it or compensate for it when praise is withheld. And so, third, we are addicted. We are praise junkies. Praise surrounds us, and its forms permeate our lives both tangibly and imaginably. Who doesn’t smile, relax and feel really good when told, “Good job!” Who doesn’t welcome a pay raise, and who doesn’t work harder to avoid being fired? In behavioral terms, this is known as operant conditioning
We receive a stimulus and then we respond. When we are reinforced for that response, we are likely to respond in the same way when we again receive the stimulus. For example, you tell your child it’s bath time (a stimulus). She responds with a big smile and heads to the bathroom. You’re pleased, and saying “Good job” should reinforce her cooperative response. The next evening, you again tell your daughter that it’s bath time (a stimulus). She again smiles cheerfully and heads for the bath with your accompanying “Good job!” On the third evening your daughter responds by screaming, “No!” Instead of praising her with “Good job,” you threaten to punish: “If you don’t come to the bath right now, I will not read you a story.”
Operant conditioning seems straightforward, but it is not. If she stops playing after your threat, what behavioral response did you just reinforce? If she continues to scream and you offer another threat, what response did you just reinforce now?
“Indeed, an impressive body of scientific research has shown that the more we reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward,” says Alfie Kohn, author of Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job!” and Unconditional Parenting. “Now the point isn’t to draw, to read, to think, to create–the point is to get the goody, whether it’s an ice cream, a sticker, or a ‘Good job.’”
The American Heritage Dictionary defines operant conditioning as “a process of behavior modification in which the likelihood of a specific behavior is increased or decreased through positive or negative reinforcement each time the behavior is exhibited, so that the subject comes to associate the pleasure or displeasure of the reinforcement with the behavior.” Conditioning is defined as a learning process in which an organism’s behavior becomes dependent on the occurrence of a stimulus in its environment.
In principle, conditioning is based on the idea that how we act is who we are. External rewards and punishments teach us how to act; the rewards and punishments reinforce or extinguish behavior. So we should reward (praise) children for acting how we want. When they don’t act in ways we want we should withhold the things they like. This is known as conditional love. We love children for what they do or don’t do and not for who they are. Children should, in this way of thinking, earn praise and rewards (love) according to external standards. And we should never reward unacceptable behaviors with pleasant consequences. According to this system of beliefs we should never do the following: Your child screams and throws her toys instead of taking her bath. When she calms down, you read her favorite story. Reading her favorite story would reinforce her screaming and throwing. Reading her favorite story is “giving in”; your young daughter is now in control, and she has conditioned you!
A powerful reinforcement or punishment is our use of love. If you do things I don’t like, I will withdraw my love and ignore you, put you in timeout, express my disapproval, or remove myself. Because children do want our approval, these are forms of control and manipulation. When we withhold our love and approval, younger children experience anxiety. Older children may experience depression. Teenagers may lose touch with their real selves and pretend to be a person whom their parents would love. In sum, the more we offer children conditional love, the lower their self-perception of self-worth and self-esteem.
A key word in the definition of conditioning is dependent. When we condition children to respond to “Good job” and other forms of praise, we erode internal, intrinsic motivation. Children become addicted to praise; the more we praise, the more they need to be praised. This erodes their ability to be independent, self-reliant and creative. Children become dependent on external motivation instead of satisfaction from the task or learning itself. Instead of reading for the enjoyment and sake of reading, children read for a sticker. They become dependent on someone else to know how they are doing. And if the sticker is withheld, why read? If someone else receives a sticker, why read? And if everyone receives a sticker, certificate, medal or trophy, why bother?
Praising and rewarding children should work, but it does not. When the stimulus that children have been conditioned to respond to is absent, children may be at a loss for what to do. Learning from conditioning is very different than learning from creativity. Becoming obedient from praise or punishment may also be temporary. Children stop doing tasks when there is no longer a reward or when the reward is of equal or lesser value. Children (and adults) can lose interest and then become less successful at tasks even when rewarded for doing them. Other research suggests that when children are rewarded for doing something nice, they do not think of themselves as nice and they are less likely to be helpful when they are not given rewards.
These results are not too surprising because praise interferes with natural learning. Praise and rewards are forms of control; we praise and reward what we like and want. “Good job” is not, in other words, praise. It is a judgment. Children hear, “I love you, but….” So while a child may initially feel good from hearing your praise, they also become suspicious, uncertain, guilty and dependent. They have learned to listen for the “but.” This is conditional love instead of unconditional love. There is a world of difference between car bumper stickers that read “I am proud of my honor student child” and “I am proud of my child.”
We say “Good job” so readily. Perhaps we’ve been conditioned to say “Good job.” How would you break this habit? What would you do if you stopped saying, “Good job?” What would you say the next time your child shows you his picture? How would you express your delight and love?
“It’s harder to make sure children feel loved unconditionally than it is just to love them,” says Kohn. “It’s harder to respond to them in all their complexity than it is to focus just on their behaviors. It’s harder to try to solve problems with them, to give them reasons for doing the right thing (let alone to help them formulate their own reasons), than it is to control them with carrots and sticks. “Working with” asks more of us than does “doing to.”
When we connect with children with unconditional love, we can respond with encouragement and gratitude. It’s bath time and your child screams and throws her toys instead of taking her bath. You respond with empathy and connect with her feelings and needs. When she calms down, you read her favorite story. Instead of believing you are rewarding her tantrum behaviors, you attend to your child with understanding; her behaviors are expressions of her unmet needs, intentions, feelings and thoughts. After the story, you and your child can talk together about different ways to meet her needs and yours.
In keeping with unconditional love, encouragement and gratitude are two strong alternatives to praise and punishment. Gratitude is an essential alternative to praise, and as Wendy Mogel declares, it must be taught.
“In order to effectively teach children gratitude, we parents must start with ourselves,” says Mogel, author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. “If you lift your mood by a trip to the mall or try to maintain your status by keeping up with the Ornsteins, your children will pick up the not-very-hidden message that acquiring things is a way to reward yourself, feel important or cheer yourself up. Even if we manage to get our children to stop asking for so many things, they still won’t learn how to be grateful unless they see us practicing gratitude. No one is born feeling grateful; it’s an acquired skill.”
Gratitude is expressed as a celebration of life. Gratitude is neither reward nor praise and gratitude is not a judgment. Marshall Rosenberg teaches gratitude is a system of feelings that tell us we have met our need to enrich and serve life. When your child shows you her picture, you can express an observation, your feelings and your met needs: “When I look at your picture, I feel so happy because I am delighted to see you being creative.”
When we express our unconditional love and gratitude, we eliminate the detrimental effects of praise (and punishment). Our children become independent and more able to develop their unique capabilities.
Paul Epstein has worked in Montessori education since 1976 as an administrator, teacher, researcher, consultant, speaker and author. His administrative experiences include working as a head of schools, executive director of a school consulting agency, director of teacher education programs and coordinator of a public school magnet program. As a teacher educator, Epstein has worked as a director of Montessori teacher education programs for both the early childhood and secondary programs. He has been a Montessori classroom teacher in Montessori early childhood, middle and high school programs. He earned his doctorate in Cultural Anthropology and Montessori teacher certifications in early childhood and secondary levels one and two from the American Montessori Society. He was an associate professor of education at Transylvania University and an adjunct professor of education at Northwestern University.
Epstein co-authored the book The Montessori Way, a definitive work on the Montessori experience.
He is also the author of An Observer’s Notebook: Learning from Children with the Observation C.O.R.E.
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