Tuesday, November 03, 2009

On Children, Parents, and the Use of Force

The issue of force and children is an important one, and one that I have often heard discussed in real life as well as online. I've also seen the following quotation by Leonard Peikoff used in these discussions among Objectivists (emphasis added):

There are only two fundamental methods by which men can deal with one another: by reason or by force, by intellectual persuasion or by physical coercion, by directing to an opponent’s brain an argument—or a bullet. Leonard Peikoff, The Ominous Parallels, p. 90 (via the Ayn Rand Lexicon)
(However, I think this drops the context. Dr. Peikoff is talking about adults here--and I agree with this statement. But kids are a different case, as you'll see.)

Is it ever proper for a parent to force a child to do something (or not to do something)? If so, how does a parent determine when such force is warranted and what kind of force should be used? (I'm using the word force here to include any kind of coercion, from spanking to physical restraint to bribing with food or stickers.)

The short answer is: Yes. Sometimes a parent must force a child to do (or not do) things. Yes, we have forced our kids to do things against their wills.

So how can I advocate Non-Punitive Discipline? If I am not a parent who imposes and enforces punishments, then when and how am I using force, and should I be?

I am aware that many view Non-Punitive Discipline as too permissive. That using such methods necessarily results in what I call Doormat Parenting (or perhaps Un-Parenting would be a more accurate term), where the kids steamroll all over Mom and Dad because they do not fear punishment. That children need to be punished (up to and including hitting) in order for them to learn how to behave.

In practice, nothing is further from the truth. Just ask my children. :o) My kids are not punished or hit, and are learning how to behave just fine. Because I set limits and then enforce them.

This post is an attempt to delineate the nuts and bolts of setting rational limits, define a couple of guidelines I use when deciding whether to employ force with the children, and explain again why I think punishments and rewards are to be avoided. It's an overview of the general principles, not an attempt to address every unique situation (but I'm hoping that the principles will prove useful in this regard). It's a long post, so I hope you'll stick with me.

(Before I begin in earnest: I've written a couple of posts already that serve as general overviews of Positive Discipline--"Discipline without Punishment," and "The Art of War for Parents." If you haven't read those and are curious, it's a good place to start. Also, I tend to use Positive Discipline, PD, and non-punitive discipline interchangeably. Positive Discipline is the name used by Jane Nelsen, who has written many books on the subject and has a website for parents (highly recommended, btw). But there are many others who advocate this style of parenting, and I think non-punitive is a good way to describe it.)

The Life, Limb & Rights Principle (Or, Setting Rational Limits)

How should a parent go about setting rational limits on the behavior of their kids? It helps to have a standard, a principle. Funny, huh? :D And yet, I know so many parents who unfortunately don't have any consistent principle to guide their decision-making in this area, and way too many parents who set limits just because it was a limit they had to endure as children.

The standard for limit-setting that I use is an idea I borrowed from Kelly, who just formulated it so nicely that I can't think of a better way to put it. The standard is this: if the child's own life, limb, health or mental health and/or if someone else's rights (which of course include their life, limb, etc.) are in definite or probable danger, then a limit must be set. Let's call this the Life, Limb & Rights Principle for short.

In cases of possible/probable serious or irreparable harm to life, limb, etc., the parent will probably set the limit before being faced with such a dire situation. Examples of such preemptive strikes include things like riding in car seats, playing in traffic, jumping off the roof, the taste-testing of Windex or other such cleaning supplies, etc. These are examples good blanket rules that we have ahead of time, and I'm sure every household has a few of these.

Sometimes you can imagine ahead of time that you might need to set a limit, but yet you don't really know until you're in the situation HOW you might best apply or phrase the limit. So you need to tweak. An example of this might be one of our household rules: Respect the Stop or the No. Of course I could imagine that we'd have a need to handle the "He's touching me!" situations (having two siblings myself, heh), but I waited until we had a real need for that limit to set it with the children. I suppose it's possible that my kids wouldn't annoy each other with the touching, and then I'd never have an actual need for such a rule.

Many times, though, you can't really predict what kinds of limits you might need to set. These are situational, and sometimes optional (more on that in a bit). For example, I never predicted I'd have to set a "No Poop on Walls" limit, and yet, there you go. Again--based on unique situations in your family, the need for particular limits might need to be set that are not needed in other households. Still, the Life, Limb & Rights Principle serves as a guideline for both predictable situations and those pesky unpredictable ones, too.

More Rational Limits:
  • Wear seat belts in the car
  • Keep peanuts out of our house
  • Loud, bothersome noises need to be produced outside or away from others if so requested
  • Use markers on paper
  • Don't empty out the kitchen cabinets unless you're willing to put the things back
  • The sledgehammer is for Daddy to use
  • Brush your teeth at least once a day
  • Ask me before you use my iPhone
  • No hitting/kicking/pinching/biting/punching people; use words instead.

Each of those limits can be traced directly to a reason based on the Life, Limb & Rights Principle. If the kids don't understand the reason for a particular limit, I can easily point it out, using reality and explaining my thinking on the matter.

Erring on the Side of Freedom (or, Opting Not to Set a Limit)

I've discussed this principle often. Sometimes, you the parent can think of a rational limit based on your own knowledge and experience. And yet if nobody else's rights will be violated, and if the consequences to the child's Life, Limb, etc. will not be severe, that's when I will often decide to Err on the Side of Freedom, giving the child the Freedom to interact with Mr. Reality without my interference.

An example of this is coat-wearing. My kids are often inappropriately attired for weather, as you will be aware if you've ever seen our pictures. This is an area in which I do not choose to enforce a limit. I'll suggest a coat, demonstrate to them that it's cold outside, remind them how useful coats generally prove to be in such weather, and then back off. Often, the child will make a good decision in the matter without any interference or further discussion from me. This is good practice, this kind of decision-making!

The only time I insist on a coat is in the (rare, for us) situations where their bodies could come to serious or irreparable harm. In other words, if the weather is really cold enough for frostbite, and we're planning to be outside for a lengthy amount of time, then I will insist on coats. I think this has only happened once, in Chicago while visiting relatives.

What happens if the kid insists on No Coat, it's not a "serious or irreparable harm" situation (say it's 40 degrees), but you're going to be somewhere outside for a good long while, and can probably count on some kind of severe whining episode as a result of the child's poor decision? Kelly told me of a situation she experienced recently with her daughter (it was sandals without socks, not a coat though). Kelly let her choose No Socks, but they agreed to bring back up socks in case her daughter changed her mind.

I've done this myself, with the coats. It's okay for you to make this non-irreparable-harm decision about your own body, but it's also not fair to the rest of us to ruin the fun of our outing if you later decide you've made a bad decision (this falls under my right to not be driven crazy by the whining). In those cases, a Plan B is a fair agreement. You are still giving the child the freedom to interact with Mr. Reality, but you are helping her (and yourself) work out a plan everyone can live with, should that decision indeed prove to be a mistake.

Enforcing Limits

So you have a bunch of limits. Now what? Well, first of all, make sure that everyone understands. Sometimes the best way to inform someone about your limit is when it first happens, in the moment. "Ouch! Don't pull my hair, it hurts." Okay, now everyone knows about the limit.

Next, prepare to remind people All. The. Live. Long. Day. Because they're new here, and they might forget. Because they might not completely understand. Because they don't agree. Because they're in a "testing" developmental stage and want to find out if you're really serious about this limit. Because they're trying to get on your nerves. Because, essentially, they're not fully rational and independent yet.

Reminding, Asking, and Encouraging
  • Ask: "Why don't you do the chest clip and I'll do the other buckles?"
  • Ask a kid who enters the house chewing peanut candy to finish his snack at his house
  • Give the kid a choice between being quieter in this room and being loud in another room/outside
  • Put paper in front of the child and remind him of the rule: "Color on paper, please!"
  • Remind the child that he's expected to put things away after he's done
  • Remind him that Dad wants kids to leave the sledgehammer alone
  • Offer to brush your teeth alongside the child. (Misery loves company, right?)
  • Remind her to ask me for a turn with the iPhone first
  • Say "Use words instead of hitting when you're mad! What could you say instead?"

Finally, be prepared to enforce the limit--to use some degree of force upon the child to make sure that they stay within the limit. Sometimes this means physically preventing the child from doing something. Sometimes it means putting away some property that is in danger of damage--even putting it away for a really long time.

And prepare to enforce your limit many times, too, for all of the reasons mentioned above.

Methods of Enforcing Limits (not an exhaustive list, just ONE of many possible ways for each limit):
  • Physically strap child into car seat
  • Take peanut food out of the house myself
  • Take loud child to another room
  • Put the markers away temporarily
  • Put a lock on a cabinet
  • Keep off-limits tools way up high in the garage
  • Brush the child's teeth for him
  • Put iPhone out of their reach
  • Hold child's arms/legs still for him

Appropriate Use of Force

Using force is a necessary part of the parenting job. How can an Objectivist justify coercion, the use of force, against their children? Isn't force supposed to be bad?

As Kelly discussed in her post "The Nature of Children," children are neither fully independent rational adults, nor are they irrational adults, nor are they animals. Therefore when kids resist a rational limit and when rights are being violated, or they are endangering themselves, then the parent is right to act in order to ensure that everyone/everything is safe. Force is appropriate to the extent that a child is not behaving rationally, and when rights are in danger.

However. And this is a Big However, so pay attention. Children are not fully mature, independent, rational adults--but neither are they dumb animals who must be conditioned to behave appropriately. And they are not irrational adults either, which is why I believe that the above quotation from Dr. Peikoff is not applicable to parenting situations. With irrational adults, when reason proves futile, then force is pretty much what you're left with.

Children are just learning to be rational. From the first concept formed during the first year of life until they leave your house never to return, they are working on their burgeoning minds. They're going to make mistakes along the way, because of inexperience or experimentation or simply because their brains are immature. When those mistakes could or will violate the Life, Limb & Rights Principle, a rational parent's job is prevent the full and complete consequences of those mistakes.

Yet I want my children, as they set out on their own as adults, to have practiced using their own minds to make rational choices about their lives. Therefore it is absolutely critical that they have not been encouraged to obey authority figures without question; to make decisions about their behavior based on punishment or reward systems; to have become accustomed to being coerced by others.

The Minimum Force Principle

What to do? Force is necessary, sometimes. And yet, they must not become accustomed to its use.

Here is another parenting principle, a corollary of the Life, Limb & Rights Principle: Use force on children as minimally and infrequently as you possibly can. Let's call this the Minimum Force Principle.

The Minimum Force Principle helps me remember that my kids hate being forced to do things just as much as I do, by virtue of the fact that they are human beings. As much as I hate being forced to pay taxes, they hate having me tell them what to do. And they're allowed to have those feelings about it.

I don't want them ever to become accustomed to the feeling of being forced. There are enough "sheeple" in this world already, people who do not even understand when they are being coerced into doing something they otherwise might not want to do. I am not raising dumb animals; I do not need to condition them through carrot-and-stick methods to act in ways of which I approve.

I am trying to guide new humans, with their young little minds, into adulthood. I know that rationality and independence (among other virtues) are crucial to their future happiness as adults. If I cripple their minds now through the frequent use of heavy-handed force, how can I expect them to know how to use their minds at the age of 18 or 22? This is their time to practice being rational, to practice being independent, while under the guidance (and yes, protection) of their parents.

And Speaking of the Carrot and the Stick . . .

When using the Minimum Force Principle, I use the minimum force necessary to ensure the limit is followed. This also means that I do not add on another Mom-imposed consequence after I've gotten that compliance. In other words--a punishment.

A punishment is imposed by the parent onto the child, over and above the enforcement of the limit. Sometimes it's to help them "learn." Sometimes it's done as an act of retribution. Examples of punishments include: spanking, grounding, sitting in a time-out chair to contemplate one's transgressions, doing extra chores around the house, etc.

Here's the thing. The kid will understand what they're supposed to do, learn what they ought to learn, simply by having the parent enforce rational limits consistently and fairly. If I am consistent and principled, then the child will learn "Mom will make me sit in my car seat, even if I don't want to." I do not need to spank him into it, threaten or scare him into it, bribe him into it, take away his toys into it, or ground him into it. I simply have to put the child into the car seat every. single. time. he is unwilling to do it himself. Case closed, end of story.

A special word about spanking--obviously, since I don't advocate punishments of any form, I don't support spanking. Using the Minimum Force Principle will sometimes include firm physical handling, and yes, those situations can be infuriating.

Spanking is the ultimate argument from authority. It's a great way to win compliance and get results. No doubt. But hitting a child--even just a "pop" on the hand--is really just "because I said so" with a dose of physical pain to back up the words. I oppose any form of hitting a child for the same reasons I oppose "because I said so"--because it teaches a child to obey rather than think.

Spanking is particularly egregious because teaches children that Mom and Dad, their protectors, the ones they are supposed to trust more than anyone else in the world, will cause them physical pain. In addition to reinforcing obedience, I think hitting damages trust in a relationship that needs so much of it due to the dependence of one party upon the other.

We don't use reward systems either. Rewards are the flip side of punishments in a way. Rewards include: gold star-type systems where the kid can "earn" a reward, or bribery.

Rewards are nicer, gentler Mom-imposed methods designed to get a child to behave in a desired way. But they're still a form of coercion. A child can easily become conditioned to behave desirably when the reward system is in place, but then might stop after Mom runs out of stickers or candy. I made this mistake when we were potty-training Ryan. Once he figured out he wouldn't get his reward every time, he actually looked at me and asked, "Well then why should I do it?"

I think it's easier and kinder to just enforce the limit as gently as possible rather than to try to make the kid want to do it for a piece of candy or a gold star. I think the use of external parent-initiated rewards and bribes can encourage second-handedness in a child. I know many kids about Ryan's age who can't do many things without looking up to see if the adult in the room is nodding approval or ready to give them a treat. These kids have already learned to substitute adult approval for their own judgment.

Ryan didn't learn to use the potty because we gave him treats; he used the potty because we sat him on it whenever we thought he looked like he needed to go. He hated this use of force, by the way, and I suspect that might be why he eventually decided that he might as well just go ahead and do it himself.

Keeping the focus on limit-setting has another great result, too. Once the child is willing and able to comply with the limit, he is effectively substituting his own inner discipline for your previous external discipline. Ryan uses the potty just fine now--he is self-disciplined in this area of his life.

Why Non-Punitive Discipline?

The Life, Limb & Rights Principle, the Err on the Side of Freedom Principle, and the Minimum Force Principle serve as a framework for most (if not all) of my parenting decisions. I've been considering how to formulate these principles for many, many years now, since before I became a parent. And boy it feels great to have finally articulated them! (Although the formulation of the Life, Limb & Rights Principle is not originally mine as I stated above--thanks, Kelly!) These principles are not derived from, but are compatible with, Non-Punitive Discipline techniques.

I think about what it means to be a good parent all the time, for many reasons. It's my day (and night) job, so I'm constantly faced with parenting challenges opportunities; I want to parent differently from my own parents; I want to parent according to my values and philosophy; but mostly because I have three wonderful children and they deserve good parenting.

As an Objectivist, I value rationality, justice, honesty, and independence (among other virtues, of course). I want my kids to value those things, too. One of the reasons I use PD tools is because I can reinforce such virtues while simultaneously modeling them for my kids. They can practice these things AND see Mommy doing those things, too. WIN-WIN.

The PD techniques I use and have described here in the past support rational limit-setting, consistent enforcing of those limits, using minimal force only when necessary, and without punishments or rewards. With a focus on getting input from the children about the limits, kindness yet firmness when enforcement is necessary, and partnership in problem-solving so that we can all improve next time, PD helps me live (and parent) according to my ideals. I am parenting in a virtuous way to get those three little values of mine going in the world.

Kelly Elmore and Brendan Casey provided valuable feedback on this post, for which I'm extremely grateful. I owe you both some kind of fancy dinner at the very least. Additionally, Kelly's contribution to my thinking about parenting cannot be emphasized enough. We have had hours of interesting conversation about parenting techniques and philosophy. Without these talks, I'm sure both my parenting and my writing would not be as far along as they are. :o)


Ellen said...

I'm a fairly new reader of your blog. Your comment in today's post surprised me, when you said "My kids are not punished or hit, and are learning how to behave just fine." In a post recently on October 21st, you said your 7.5 year old is "even acting out physically--we had to literally carry/drag/hold him away from an outing last weekend while he hit and kicked at us" and that later you were "fending off the occasional half-hearted kick". If I recall, 7.5 years old is around second grade. I'm surprised (and a bit shocked) a child that age is kicking and hitting his parents, and his parents say that's learning how to behave "just fine".

Frankly, it makes me question how effectively your parenting method is working, if he still thinks that is an okay option. If you've been doing all this rational parenting for almost 8 years, how do you account for him still kicking and hitting you? Shouldn't not initiating force be one of the biggest fundamental issues to have firmly established by now?

Rational Jenn said...

Hi Ellen! Thanks for stopping by!

I think your question is a good one. The short answer is--he's going through a testing thing right now. This hitting/kicking thing is VERY unusual, and we haven't had to deal with such behavior for a while--like in years.

All kids test boundaries, and that's what he's doing. And it's not all that shocking to me that a child of 7.5 might try to lash out physically. Infuriating, yes. Shocking, not so much. I'd say Ryan is certainly not unusual in continuing to test this boundary with us. Most of his friends are parented much differently than he is, and I see that behavior occasionally from them, too.

As far as not initiating force--yes, he knows it's wrong, but he's still only 7.5. He's not completely rational, so he's going to do irrational things, as well as make mistakes. Just because a child knows something is wrong doesn't mean he won't ever do that behavior.

I do not hit or punish, and my kids are learning how to behave just fine. I stand by that statement. Do they make mistakes and behave irrationally sometimes? Yes they do. Do I make mistakes? Yes. Are they learning to behave and are they developing inner discipline? Most certainly.

I guess I should've made it clear in the previous post that his behavior was a huge aberration. I'd also like to make it clear that "all this rational parenting" is NOT necessarily going to mean that my children are perfectly well-behaved at all times.


Wendy Hawksley said...

This is a wonderful post and I plan to read it over a few times. We have found that not forcing something causes far less stress on both sides.

Wendy Hawksley said...

But that said, when it comes down to "force" being the case, doing it in non-punitive ways is the goal.

Daniel said...


Great post! I did, however, find the part on rewards as "a kind of coercion" a bit unclear.

I think we both agree that it is not coercion in a strict sense--i.e., that a parent who rewards their child for good behavior is not forcing them to do anything.

But if it doesn't mean this, I'm at a loss to see just what kind, or subset, of coercion it is.

Is it correct to say you're using parental coercion as a sort of stand-in for parental influence backed by force?

In this way, parental influence not backed by force would, though different, be closely related.

But does "parental influence not backed by force" necessarily lead to second-handedness in a child? In fact, when done properly, can't it be really good?

Michael Garrett said...

Wow. Thanks, Jenn. What a great post!

Kelly Elmore said...


I can't answer for Jenn on what she meant by rewards as coercion, but I can tell you why I think they are harmful to children. First, a parent should have a rational reason for wanting a child to have certain kinds of behaviors. You want your child to potty train because you don't want to do it forever and you know he will be able to be more independent in the world if he can go to the potty by himself. You want your child to speak politely because you know he will have more success in personal relationships if he does. So, if you use external rewards for these rational skills (like candy to go potty, or stickers for politeness), you teach children to value the behaviors for the wrong reasons. Now they value them because of you and what you can give them, instead of learning what those behaviors can get for the child himself.

A more complicated example is the reaction I get from my students about grades. Grades are a kind of reward and punishment system. Instead of trying to learn what I am teaching (gymnastics pedagogy) because they are going to be teachers and will need it to teach real kids, my students are obsessed with getting an A. They are so focused on the reward that they don't try very hard on things that aren't graded, no matter how valuable the experience might be. The only standard of value they are able to focus on is the reward.

Rewarding children takes the focus off of the intrinsic values to be gained from reality and put it on the value to be gotten from you. That is second-handedness.


Kelly Elmore said...

Oh and one other thing about parental influence. I think that children naturally want to please their parents when they are very small. Without any evidence at all, I would guess this is evolutionary and seems like a good method of survival to me. But, as parents trying to raise independent children, I think it's important for us to be very very careful how we use our influence. I want to be a good example. I want to give good advice. But, I try very hard to make sure that I don't emotionally manipulate my child into putting her focus on me, instead of her own conclusions. It is incredibly easy to do, I think, and I fail doing this all the time, I am sure. But I try not to use her biological and powerful love for me to manipulate her into good behavior, values I find more valuable. I try to use reason to convince her instead. It's a hard line to walk.


Dr. Jane Nelsen said...

First I want to respond to Ellen, It is very healthy for children to "test" boundaries as part of their "individuation" process (finding out who they are, separate from their parents) In a punitive environment children don't feel safe to "test." These children often "sneak" around and do their testing elsewhere.

One of my "tests" of good parenting is when other people tell you how well your children behave, and you are surprised because they test you so much at home. Very healthy. They can test at home because you have created a safe environment to do so, and are learning how to behave well in public.

Dr. Jane Nelsen said...

Jenn, I'm always impressed with your posts. You are so deep and thorough. I want to add something very simple. :-)

Discipline is not punitive or permissive when it is done both kindly and firmly. "I love you and the answer is No."

Poop on the wall: "Help me get the sponge and cleaner so you can help clean this up."

No coat. Instead of reminding, ask, "What do you need to take if you don't want to be cold outside?" More words but it invites children to think instead of resisting being "told" (reminded).

Kids fighting: "Can you two find a solution, or do you need to separate for awhile?" If they are in the car, pull over and read a book until they are ready to stop--see next suggestion for what this is called.

Deciding what you will do. You gave several examples of this--backup coats, etc. "I will start the car when seat belts are buckled."

Kelly Elmore said...

Oh heavens, I am about to argue with Jane Nelson!! :) I am so excited to see you on this blog!!

But I do think I disagree with this:

Discipline is not punitive or permissive when it is done both kindly and firmly. "I love you and the answer is No."

I think some parents use the idea that you can punish kindly to cover up the punishment. It is too easy to say, "I love you, and I am doing this for your own good." A parent could ground a child, take away the child's property, or even spank, while speaking gently and loving the child the whole time. I know that you and I would not call these actions kind, but punishers think they are being kind in the long run. So I want to be more explicit and say that the way to tell if one's discipline is punitive or permissive is to ask oneself, "Am I setting only necessary limits? Do I teach or let reality teach, but not retaliate? Am I trying to make the child feel bad or guilty to prove my point? Am I giving the child the limits that he needs to protect him from irreparable harm and to protect others' rights? Am I providing enough structure and limits for my child to feel safe?"

What do you think?

Dr. Jane Nelsen said...

Kelly, You are so right. I tried to keep it too simple. I agree with everything you say. That is why I actually have 5 Criteria for Positive Discipline and Kind and Firm is only one of them. Positive Discipline really needs to meet all five. Have you seen my video of the Five Criteria on my website? Even when I tell parents that it is okay to say, "I love you and the answer is No," It should be used rarely--maybe once or twice in a teens lifetime. And, I thing problem-solving and finding agreements that are respectful to everyone is much more effective.

Kelly Elmore said...

Thanks, Jane. I haven't seen that video, but I will go watch it.

By the way, I'm so excited that you are speaking here in Atlanta. I will not be able to make it to the workshop (darn school!), but I will be at your evening speech. I look forward to meeting you very much!

Dr. Jane Nelsen said...

Kelly, I would love to meet you too--and Jenn and Fellisa. I'm coming in a day early and will have the 2nd free until the lecture. Maybe we can figure out a time to meet--maybe for dinner Dec. 1

Rational Jenn said...

Wendy, Daniel, Michael, Kelly, and Jane--thanks for your comments!

Daniel, I agree with the way Kelly answered your question. I think the topic would be a good one for a future post, so I'll address it more specifically then. It is an important issue, rewards, but what it reminds me of is behaviorism, of when I took Psych in college, watching the pigeon push the lever (or whatever it was). For me, this goes back to teaching my kids to make decisions for rational reasons, not because of the treat they might get from me if I decide they made the right decision.

Jane--I'd love to get together for dinner while you're in town! Which reminds me--I'd better go sign up for your lectures. :o) We'll be in touch about the details. I'm excited to meet Felissa too.

Kelly Elmore said...

I'm in for dinner too! Sounds great!


Daniel said...

Thanks Jenn. Am looking forward to that post.

I have yet to delve fully into this issue but it seems there is a great need for objective definitions in this field.

For example, what constitutes a reward? Does a smile and a high five, in response to a kid's achievement, constitute one? Or, using one of Kelly's examples, are good grades a reward?

What distinguishes a reward from an objective evaluation of the facts (or an act of justice) in the above cases?

Does being a good parent demand that one pretend facts (or one's estimates of them) are other than they are? Put another way: is emotional neutrality with regards to children's choices and the consequences a virtue?

Are kids quick to exchange their parent's (or teacher's) values for their own? In certain areas--like food and games and schedules--it seems that this is not the case. But this seems to be the premise behind the strong need for caution.

What is "extrinsic motivation" and is it necessarily the same as "second-handed motivation"? How does the "extrinsic motivation" of giving a kid an allowance for their efforts at school differ from an adult getting a salary for the efforts at work?

These are a bunch of good questions, and I have answers for some, but I'm not sure that they are good (yet)!

Travis N said...

Quick comment about "rewards". I think this can be a dangerously ambiguous term. In a sense, we *do* want kids' good behavior to be rewarded. After all, life is all about successfully achieving your values, and the achievement of those values is precisely a "reward" for the work it took to get there. On the other hand, I completely agree with what Jenn and Kelly and others have been saying about not wanting to, e.g., teach kids to only learn how to walk or read or climb because they get candy or good grades or whatever.

So it really is crucial to distinguish "intrinsic" from "extrinsic" rewards -- though I kind of suspect that, with a little thought, one could come up with much better terminology, and probably even genuinely distinct concepts for the two categories (as opposed to using the word "reward" for both, but with different jargonny adjectives in front).

Anyway, I think the fundamental thing is the reality-focus that is a common theme of Jenn's posts, and to appreciate that this is really the same as a value-achievement focus. That is, the idea is to help kids discover the kind of real happiness (one might say, the kind of genuine reward) that comes with the achievement of real, rational values in reality. For example, they should learn to read because it is a pleasure to read and because doing it opens all kinds of further doors to all kinds of further values. On the other hand, if what they learn is that "reading is good because somebody gives you candy when you do it" they are really badly missing the point -- i.e., failing to achieve the actual value that was supposed to have been at stake.

I guess my point is just to make more explicit that being "anti-reward" doesn't mean you don't want your kids to get "positive feedback" from what they do -- rather, it's just that you want, as much as possible, for that positive feedback to come from "Mr. Reality".

Rational Jenn said...

Daniel and Travis, thank you SO much. I was really hoping to get this kind of constructive feedback on this piece.

I used the term "reward" very ambiguously, and I'm going to edit the post to add in "external" here and there, for the benefit of those who might read the post but not these comments. I hope that will clarify what I mean somewhat.

I will write a post sometime in the future (soon, I hope) discussing this issue more completely because it is an important topic and warrants definition.

The rewards I was referring are similar to how I used the term punishment: in other words, external, Mom-imposed rewards. I think Mr. Reality-imposed rewards need to be experienced directly and free from parental interference or interpretation. Those are the best kind of rewards! :o)

I'm not talking about being an emotionally neutral parent--I think it's just fine to share with my kids my real emotions about, well, everything! Even things they do.

So I express when I'm mad, happy, sad, disappointed. Kindly, I hope, when I'm upset, but freely and exuberantly when I'm excited. "You used the potty! Hooray!!!!!" However, I try very carefully to share my emotion WITH them, alongside them, so that they are experiencing their own emotions directly. I've seen many parents rob their children of their emotion by overstepping this line and creating situations where the kid is no longer just experiencing his emotions, but rather learning to substitute his parent's instead. Again, another topic that warrants further discussion. Kelly touched on this briefly early in the comments when she mentioned that kids naturally want to please their parents, that this tendency is one that it's important not to take advantage of.

The best example I can think of off the bat is in sports. I've seen so many parents get too excited about their kid scoring a goal, that it can deflate that kid's well-earned sense of pride and often leaves them subdued and shrugging, as if to say, "well I'm glad she's happy about it." More on that topic later.

A word about allowances, Daniel. We do not reward our older kids with money for regular chores or grades or good behavior. We have a slightly different take on allowance, and I wrote a post about it here, called Kids & Money.

Whew! Long! Again, I want to thank both of you for commenting so thoughtfully. This is my first real attempt to pull together my own parenting principles into one cohesive area, and your comments will help me make this better. :o)

Kelly Elmore said...

Daniel, I wanted to give you my standard for what I consider a reward and what is just sharing honest feelings with my child. I try to see my motivations. Am I manufacturing my excitement in order to encourage more of the behavior? that's a reward. Am I just excited? That's honest emotion. I see parents all the time who get all worked up emotionally on purpose to how kids how great it is that they didn't hit or went to the potty or something. I would only get excited about those things if I was actually excited - if I had a child who had been having problems with those things and had a real success.

The difference I see in paying for grades and paying for work (besides my antipathy for the system of grading to begin with) is that the child trading any value with the parent. The employer pays me because I give him a value worth the money. The child is gaining a value, not for me, but for himself, so if I pay him it is not an honest assessment of what his work has produced for me, but a reward made up to make him produce more for himself.


Kelly Elmore said...

I see parents all the time who get all worked up emotionally on purpose to SHOW kids how great it is that they didn't hit or went to the potty or something.

The difference I see in paying for grades and paying for work (besides my antipathy for the system of grading to begin with) is that the child ISN'T trading any value with the parent.

Can you tell I was in a big ole hurry on my way to school? :)


Dr. Jane Nelsen said...

Why is it that children want to please their parents? They want to experience belonging and significance--the primary goal of all people according to Alfred Adler and a primary concept of Positive Discipline. Extrinsic rewards (and praise) can create the belief in children that they "belong and are significant" only when others approve of them or when others "reward" them.
A goal of Positive Discipline is to help children develop a sense of inner capability and inner sense of self-worth and accomplishment, and that belonging is based on respect for self and others. (Not all others, of course, but that is another subject.)
Regarding the issue of grades (a system that takes a way from the intrinsic pleasure of learning), "I'm so proud of you, here is $100 for that A,) is praise and reward, makes the accomplishment about the adult instead of the child, and encourages dependence on the evaluation of others. "I enjoy experiencing your pleasure in what you have accomplished," keeps the "accomplishment" about the child and encourages self-evaluation.
I love what Kelly said about manufactured excitement vs. honest emotion. Parents manufacture excitement in an attempt to encourage their children without realizing that the long-term results could be discouraging when their children learn to depend on others for their sense of worth.