At the risk of sounding insufferably self-righteous, I've never had to resort to rewards -- or punishments -- with my child. No star charts, no money for completing chores, no promises of coveted objects or trips or treats if she's 'extra good'. It's nothing to do with me; she's just that sort of human. She was born that way. Self-motivated, responsible, autonomous, and on the rare occasion when she's not, there's always good reason for it. Maybe because she's always loved and accepted me unconditionally, I'm slowly learning to do that for her. And yes, I'm bloody slow.
Reward's softer, squishier cousin praise, though? I tend to pile that on with a trowel, for my daughter, my husband, the dog, myself. So imagine my discomfort when confronted by a huge body of research, spanning decades, which posits the theory that praise and rewards are just as detrimental to children and adults as punishment.
The behavioural school of psychology teaches us that praise and rewards work, manipulating others to do what we want them to do.
Trouble is, we're not rats, pigeons or dogs.
Just to be clear: when I speak of praise, I don't mean we should refrain from giving detailed, positive feedback. But 'Good girl!' or 'That's great!' are not enough. They are a blanket judgment, an evaluation. If your closest friend showed you a copy of their manuscript or new painting or a table they made, what would you say? I bet you would give well-considered, authentic criticism about their process and the end result. Our kids deserve nothing less.
When my daughter was six months old, I read Alfie Kohn's Punished by Rewards, and it blew my mind. I had always been the goody-two-shoes, straight-A student. At university, I wanted the bachelor's degree, then the honours, the masters and the doctorate. Why? What if my relentless pursuit of perfect scores and approval squeezed out my natural inclination to experiment, take risks, innovate? If I hadn't bought into that artificial pressure, would I have been able to access a deeper well of creativity and fulfillment?
Kohn speaks about the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. When a pat on the head or a gold star or a pay rise are dangled in front of you, you focus solely on the prize. You rush to get the work done in order to get it. You think about how best to secure the goal. The unfolding process, the tinkering and the joy of discovery are layered over by concepts such as winning or losing, passing or failing, being worthy or unworthy.
Multiple studies show that children lose interest in reading when it's measured, praised and rewarded. And after the reward is given, they stop reading for pleasure. The reward robs them of their passion and motivation to explore difficult or challenging subjects, discourages them from taking risks, and worst of all, the value of the task lies only in pleasing the teacher or the parent, rather than in their relationship with the themes or each other. Rewards erode connection, trust and collaboration, creating a culture of competitiveness.
And the crux of all praise, reward or punishment is power. This is where I start to get itchy and uncomfortable. When you have power over someone, whether it be your child or your employee or your slave, you get to choose whether to wield that power or not, and how to do so. You are the controller, the ultimate judge of what is right or wrong. You sacrifice realness and authenticity in the relationship for compliance. Rewards, like economies, operate on the illusion of scarcity. If there are only so many merit certificates to hand out, or jobs to fill, then we create a society of fake winners and losers. Do we really want that for our kids?
Now I can hear the well-meaning rebuttals. But that's the way it works, honey, you'll tell me. How's your kid ever going to make it in the real world?
But I'm not here to uphold the status quo, and nor is my child. We're here to try and make it better.
In a global landscape of incessant war, genocide, sexual abuse, violence, poverty and climate disaster, what exactly are we at such pains to protect? In a society that requires us merely to earn, conform and consume, I want to find a smarter way. And in order to do that, I need to change the way I think and act. What better place to start than at home?
So we come full circle, back to unconditional acceptance. You are enough as you are. You can still be loved with your weaknesses, idiosyncracies and flaws. You can have compassion for yourself and others.
This doesn't mean 'permissive parenting', giving up, or plain old anarchy. It doesn't mean there are no practical boundaries or societal rules. But it does mean to question more thoroughly whether we accept these false constructions. Our whole society is built on a fragile, conditional edifice, so to parent unconditionally is a radical act of freedom, for you and your child.