Rewards and Praise: The Poisoned Carrot - Part I
By Robin Grille
We give our children ice-cream if they're "good", chocolate if
they're quiet, little gold stars if they eat their greens, maybe
even money if they get good marks at school. We praise them with
a "good boy!" or "good girl!" if they do something that pleases
us. For the modern and discerning parent, the hitting-and-shaming
method of "discipline" is passť. Punishment is out, and rewards
are in. Why use the stick, when we can better teach a child by
using a carrot?
The New Age hype about praising and rewarding children for what
we call "good" behavior has gained massive popularity. "Find
something good your child has done, and praise them for it!" say
the nouveau "how-to" books and seminars. Psychologists all over
recommend the "star-chart" treatment to modify your child's
behavior. This trend is the offspring of a particular school of
psychology - the "behaviorists" - whose thinking currently
dominates much of mainstream psychological and educational
In fact, these days praising or rewarding your kids' "good"
behavior is so customary that almost nobody - until recently -
has thought to question its validity. Praising or rewarding kids
is just plain common sense, and good parenting - isn't it?. Who
would doubt that it's good to give children praise, or prizes
when they perform to our liking?
The praise-and-reward method is definitely hunky-dory, since it
is backed by a ton of evidence from the most methodical and
ingenious research that money can buy. Actually, it springs from
the work of psychologists who painstakingly discovered that they
could train rats to run mazes, pigeons to peck at colored
buttons, and dogs to salivate at the sound of the dinner bell -
by giving them a controlled schedule of rewards. Psychologists
soon became titillated about the idea of controlling human
beings, by applying to us the same principles that worked on
animals. Imagine their excitement when they realized that rewards
work exactly the same on humans as on rats, pigeons and dogs.
Modern psychological know-how has enabled us to manipulate
children's behavior, thoughts and emotions in the same way as we
can teach a seal, with a few sardines and a little flattery, to
balance a ball on its nose.
One problem, though. We don't particularly care about the quality
of relationship we develop with a lab-rat. We are not concerned
with rodents' developing self-esteem, their sense of autonomy or
independence, nor do we give a hoot whether the rat will get
interested in trying bigger and better mazes of it's own accord,
long after we stop rewarding it with little food pellets. And
that, as most of our experts have failed to tell us, is where the
whole fancy technology of "reward, praise and reinforce" falls to
Over and over we have been taught that we should praise and
reward our children a lot more. What could be wrong with that? On
the surface, praise looks marvelous - the key to successful
children! Scratch this surface, however, and the results look
But, rewards improve children's behavior and performance, don't
Or so we thought. However, when the little gold stars or
jelly-beans stop coming, the behavior we were trying to reinforce
tends to peter out. Children that have grown used to expecting
praise, can feel crushed when it doesn't come. This dampens their
perseverance. There is plenty of evidence that in the long term,
reward systems are ineffective.
Contrary to popular myth, there are many studies showing that
when children expect or anticipate rewards, they perform more
poorly. One study found that students' performance was undermined
when offered money for better marks. A number of American and
Israeli studies show that reward systems suppress students'
creativity, and generally impoverish the quality of their work.
Rewards can kill creativity, because they discourage risk-taking.
When children are hooked on getting a reward, they tend to avoid
challenges, to "play it safe". They prefer to do the minimum
required to get that prize.
Here is a good illustration of why we made the mistake of
believing in rewards, based on benefits that appear on the
surface. When an American fast-food company offered food prizes
to children for every book they read, reading rates soared. This
certainly looked encouraging - at first glance. On closer
inspection, however, it was demonstrated that the children were
selecting shorter books, and that their comprehension test-scores
plummeted. They were reading for junk-food, rather than for the
intrinsic enjoyment of reading. Meanwhile, reading outside school
(the unrewarded situation) dropped off. There are many more
studies showing that, while rewards may well increase activity,
they smother enthusiasm and kill passion. Individuals
anticipating rewards lose interest in activities that were
otherwise attractive. It seems that the more we want the reward,
the more we come to dislike what we have to do to get it. The
activity required of us stands in the way of our coveted prize.
It would have been smarter to just give the kids more interesting
books, as there is plenty of evidence that intrinsically
enjoyable activity is the best motivator and performance
Can rewards and praise harm our relationship with our children?
You wouldn't think that the positive things you say to your child
about himself or herself can be as destructive as negative
labels. But there are times when this is true. Thanks to modern
advances in behavioral science, our ability to seduce or
manipulate children (and animals! and grown-ups!) to do what we
want them to has become increasingly sophisticated. But the cost
of manipulating through rewards has been great. Below are ten
ways in which praise and rewards can damage our relationship with
Rewards and praise condition children to seek approval;
they end up doing things to impress, instead of doing things
for themselves. This can hold back the development of
self-motivation and makes them dependent on outside opinion.
When children get used to getting goodies for
"performing", they become pleasers, over-reliant
on positive strokes. Rewards and praise can create a kind of
addictive behavior: children can get addicted to
recognition, and thus lose touch with the simple joy of
doing what they love. So many of us are addicted to
prestige: we get depressed when admiration fails to come.
Instead of doing what we do for its own sake, we fish for
flattery or reassurance, and when the applause dies away, we
sink into despair. Giving rewards or praise can be
habit-forming. This is because the more rewards we use, the
more we have to use them to keep children motivated. Praise
cannot create a personal commitment to "good"
behavior or performance. It only creates a commitment to
One of the worst things we can do is to praise a child's
potential. Acclamations like "I just know you can do
it", "You're getting better!", "I know
you've got it in you!", "You'll get
there!" sound supportive on the surface. But these
compliments are loaded with our expectation that the child
must improve in some way. It tells the child there is a
target to keep reaching for in order to get the full
"bravo!". Praising children's potential does not
help them to like themselves for who they already are, and
can make them feel disappointed with themselves. Underneath
the praise is the silent implication: "you're not
good enough yet". This seduces children to work harder
to impress us, at the expense of their own self-esteem. As
psychologist Louise Porter says: "If you want children
to develop a healthy self-esteem, stop praising them"
(see reading list below).
Rewarding children's compliance is the flip-side of
punishing their disobedience. It is seduction in the place
of tyranny. Many studies show that parents who use more
rewards also use more punishment, they are more likely to be
autocratic. Praise is the sweet side of authoritarian
parenting. It reduces the relationship to one of controller
and controlled. That is why the more astute - or less
gullible! - children feel something "icky" in
praise; it makes them feel condescended to. Praise is a
reminder that the praiser has power over them. It diminishes
the child's sense of autonomy, and, like a little pat on
the head, it keeps them small.
Meanwhile, the rewarder is like an assessor, judging what
merits praise and what doesn't. This makes them somewhat
scary to the child. The use of praise or rewards does not
make children feel supported. It makes them feel evaluated
and judged. Though "Good boy!" or "Good
girl!" is a positive judgment, it is still a judgment
from on high, and ultimately it alienates the child.
The more insightful children can see right through
manipulation. They are onto us, they think our praise is
calculating, and they are not easily outwitted by seductive
tactics. In particular, when praise is a technique we have
learned from a book or a seminar, it is likely to come
across as false and contrived. Praise and rewards, like
flattery, can stink of our efforts to control, and lose our
Children, just like adults, naturally recoil from being
controlled. We all want to grow toward self-determination.
Praise can therefore create resistance, since it impinges on
a child's developing sense of autonomy.
Rewards punish, because the child is denied the reward,
praise or approval unless he or she "comes up with the
goods". Moreover, the child who is used to being
praised begins to feel inadequate if the praise doesn't
come. Nothing feels more defeating to a child than to miss
out on a reward that he or she had been conditioned to
expect. Inside every carrot, there is a stick.
When children are bribed with rewards for "good"
behavior, they soon learn how to manipulate us by acting the
part that is expected of them. They wise up to what it takes
to get the goodies from us: the approval, the ice-cream,
whatever. They become superficially compliant, doing
whatever it takes to flatter or impress us, and honesty
suffers. After all, who wants to be honest or real with a
person who is evaluating them? Once relating is reduced to
mutual manipulation rather than authenticity, this sets the
stage for manipulative and dishonest relationships later in
life. Manipulation erodes the functions of mutual trust,
vulnerability and transparency, which are vital to healthy
As a result of early manipulation, we grow up trying hard to
please, or we learn to use our wiles to impress, in order to
get the goodies - at the expense of being our natural
selves. We develop a phony or false self that distorts our
relationships with others.
Among siblings, or in the classroom, reward systems create
competition, jealousy, envy, and mistrust. Rewards or prizes
for "good" performance are a threat to
co-operation or collaboration.
Praise can make children feel robbed. If we are hungry for
admiration ourselves, we can sometimes err by deriving it
through our children's triumphs. We use them to make up
for our own wounded self-esteem or pride. If we are praising
them because they have made us feel good about ourselves,
they sense this. This takes away from their good feelings
about themselves; our praise can act as rain on their
picnic. Some children refuse to produce what they are
naturally good at, because they are repulsed by their
Continue..... Part II