Thursday, January 24, 2008

When Incentives Run Amok

Saw this yesterday about a school in Atlanta, south of here, that is paying kids $8 an hour to study after school! Plus! Cash bonuses for improved performance! Oh my goodness.

About the only good thing I can say about this idea is that it's privately funded. Which is a relief.

Alfie Kohn has a great book called Punished by Rewards, where he argues that the use--or overuse as the case may be--of rewards and incentives actually undermines a person's performance, in school or on the job. As a parent who does not gold-sticker as a matter of course*, I found myself in agreement with most of his arguments.

The problem I see with rewards, bribes, stickers, etc. as a parenting strategy, especially when it's the primary parenting strategy, is that these external motivators can hinder a child's ability to figure out how to motivate himself. By dangling an artificial reward for say, reading a book, the parent might unwittingly make it harder for the child to discover his own rewards for reading that book--information, the thrill of an exciting story, the pride in reading the book all by himself.

I've seen the downside of these incentives as a parent, when I've slipped into the habits I learned from my own parents, or just got plain desperate. Every time we've offered an incentive to Ryan so that he'd do something, especially something he really needs to do regularly and on his own (like use the toilet), he completely reverts to the old status quo once we get tired of or forget to do the incentive. And then the struggles are tenfold. I've found with Ryan (haven't really hit this with Morgan yet) that it's always worth the effort to put the work in at the beginning and stick to the limits we set than it is to go back and undo an expectation that we had created by offering an incentive. We don't make too many of these mistakes any more. I simply don't have the energy for it!

Now, every kid is different. I have always loved seeing checkmarks or stars or something next to a list of things I accomplished, even as a child. But--I never read my books, to use the example from before, simply for the gold stars. The gold stars enhanced my experience, but were not a substitute for my own reasons for doing it. Some kids respond to things like this--a visual representation of their accomplishments. And I think it's okay to do things like that for them, as long as the gold stars are not the only motivation for doing X.

Even though I loved my checkmarks on lists of things to read or my homework (yes, I was one of those kids--Hermione Granger is my hero), I can also think of an example in which they didn't work for me: housework. My mom had elaborate lists and schedules for us kids and our chores. And no amount of gold-starring made me want to do my chores on my own. I had no sense of pride or accomplishment in getting my room clean or folding the laundry. Even the process of crossing my completed tasks off the list, usually so satisfying for me, was a lukewarm experience at best. My mom was creative; she tried so many different kinds of rewards (and punishments) to get to us to be motivated to help out around the house without having to be reminded. Nothing worked, because ultimately, the internal motivation wasn't there. I'm not blaming her--she certainly did her best. And I of course have lots and lots of sympathy with her now!

But I think what I would have done if I were her--or, to put it another way--what I am trying to do now that I am her--is to figure out what gives each kid a sense of achievement and go from there. For example--Ryan likes to help around the house (sometimes), but we have to make it a game, which is completely age-and-Ryan-appropriate. So we have spy missions to put toys back and secret washcloth folding societies, things like that. And then I always point out the advantages to him of having things where they belong. "Wow! You can see the floor! Hey! Look what interesting toy we found under all this mess!" Maybe I'm way off here--time will surely tell--but I do know that I never had a sense of why I should care if the kitchen was clean. Maybe that would have made a difference and I wouldn't still be struggling to change years of terrible housekeeping habits. NOW I understand the value of a clean house and am motivated to keep it in semi-straightened condition as often as several days a week! I'm growing as a person here.

Many well-intentioned parents substitute external motivators in situations where the child can discover--if given the chance and the time and maybe a nudge or two--their own internal motivation. Use too many external motivators and the kid's internal motivation gets crippled, resulting in a kid who can't make a move without getting a sticker or a piece of candy, a kid who doesn't even know what he wants or how to determine what he might want.

It's a form of second-handedness, now that I think about it, this inability to motivate oneself, to do something only when some kind of incentive is offered by someone else.

From "The Nature of the Second-Hander," For the New Intellectual, page 70:

You've wondered why [the second-handers] suffer, why they seek happiness and never find it. If any man stopped and asked himself whether he's ever held a truly personal desire, he'd find the answer. He'd see that all his wishes, his efforts, his dreams, his ambitions are motivated by other men.

That's not what I want for my kids. If I want them to have healthy, functional minds, to be independent adults, to do the things that bring them happiness, then I must allow them the chance to figure out how to be self-motivated. Otherwise, I'll have to pay them --and pay them well!--just to get their homework done. And I'm sooooo not doing that.

*Well, there was a candy-bribery incident I recall, in which I shamelessly offered candy to Ryan in exchange for his cooperation for a photographer at a wedding, but it's very, very rare that we do something like that.

1 comment:

S said...

Another great post on a subject that is dear to my heart! How sad is it that often my first thought is "What's in this for me?" Can I really find no other reason to do the right thing? That's my experience in being raised with a rewards/punishment household.

The hardest part though is not falling back on that system with the kids. I can't tell you the countless number of times I've felt that my hands are tied because I can't "control" my children. That's another post all to itself! I have found that about half of the time I can get the result I am looking for if I stop nagging and back off. It might not happen when I wanted it to, but it does happen eventually or I do it myself and try to model the behavior that I am looking for. I don't think anything tests my patience the way good parenting does!

Back to the article-- my first thought when I read it was that I bet the end result will be less attendance than they have now.

Have you read Alfie's other books? I just noticed he was in town today, what a bummer! I missed it.