Do rewards and praise do more harm than good?

Being that my once sweet little baby has turned into an opinionated helper/ wannabe self-sufficient toddler, I found myself struggling with the everyday tasks and best ways to handle them.  Then I discovered a bit of a mind-shifting podcast “Your Parenting Mojo” by Jen Lumanlan. It features research-based ideas to help kids thrive.  Parenting is very humbling. It consistently challenges my old beliefs. It challenges how I naturally want to react to toddler behavior —  pleasant or unpleasant.

The first year of Landrie’s life could be summed up as the year of survival — for both me and her — not much “parenting” going on.  Knowing I would soon need to “parent,” I tried to equip myself with as many foundation parenting tools in the toolbox as possible. Like –Listen: Five Tools to Meet Your Everyday Parenting ChallengesNo-Drama Discipline and How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen — a survival guide to life with children ages 2-7.  (Audible is my BFF!)

My primary takeaway from these books is that discipline can occur without having to punish. It is all about finding ways to connect with your child.  Discipline is meant for redirecting and teaching while punishment is to inflict/produce pain. Funny, when I examined my beliefs on those two words, I had confused them as meaning the same thing. I thought you needed to have some type of punishment (ie. time out) in order to produce discipline.  Tantrums, tensions and tears are part the growing up process.  You are only fooling yourself as a parent if you think the three T’s are avoidable.  This is a new, exciting world to explore and discover that comes with lots of emotions. These emotions need to be experienced and boundaries need to be pushed. Heck, even as an adult, I too have my tantrums, experience tension and shed many tears.


SO okay, when the time came for discipline, I was somewhat armed with a few redirecting, “holding the limit” & connecting tools to begin handling misbehavior.  With all my focusing on the misbehavior tools, I neglected paying much attention to tools for the “good” behavior.  I found myself starting to say to Landrie — “if you do this, then you can have that” when she wasn’t doing something I wanted her to-do.  At first it was nice —  when she wasn’t doing something I wanted her to do, I would dangle a reward and she’d snapped into a most compliant child.  But then I listened to Lumanlan’s podcast 009: Do you punish your child with rewards? Yikes! I was convicted that what I was starting to implement with the “do this and get that”  or the “good job” was just as harmful as a punishment and really wasn’t effective long-term.  Actually, what I was doing was manipulating the situation.  I was wanting to be in control. I wanted to have things done MY way without considering why Landrie wasn’t doing what was asked of her.  The 23 minute podcast referenced Alfie Kohn’s book — Punished by Rewards which left me wanting to learn more about the research behind this strategy of no rewards and what to-do instead.

Kohn writes about how rewards are ineffective and can be harmful in the workplace, schools and parenting — all very fascinating. I was most interested in the parenting sections.  He demonstrates, through research, that the moment a child is given a reward for a behavior, their focus moves to the next reward instead of the behavior they are being rewarded for.  Apparently, we’ve been duped into thinking that we can motivate our children long-term with rewards.  The carrot on the stick or the treat for rolling over are hurting us more then helping us.  Motivation, creativity and curiosity come from within — and the minute that one attaches a reward for a “good” behavior — ie: sitting quietly, practicing the piano, doing your homework — then that reward shuts down the traits we are diligently trying to instill — motivation, independence, kindness, generosity, creativity and curiosity.

A strategy that relies on punishment or consequences prompts a child to wonder, “What am I suppose to do, and what will happen to me if I don’t do it?” A strategy based on rewards leads the child to ask, “What am I supposed to do, and what will I get for doing it?”.  — Alfie Kohn

As parents we often feel the need to say something for good behavior — “Good Job!” or “Good Sharing!”. When really it’s okay to be quiet.  I’ll say it again — it’s okay to be quiet. We don’t always have to acknowledge and praise everything our children do.  Kohn says  what we are really doing is creating  “Praise Junkies.” Instead, what you can do is say what you saw (I like how you drew the nose on that face) or ask more questions (What part of your drawing do you like the best?).  For more examples on what to say instead of “Good Job,”  Parent Coach – Nicole Schwarz has a list of 50 ways to say good job without saying good job.

This is not easy!! I, too, am learning as I go. The struggle is real. Most school mornings, I really want to say, “If you get in the car now, then I will give you a sticker.” Followed up with a “Good Job!” after she gets in her car seat. Instead I’m reminded of Punished by Rewards and say, “Please get in the car, we need to get going. Otherwise, you will be late to school.” —  and herding my toddler out the door.  BUT, guess what?, I’m learning as I strive to show her unconditional love and respect— she gets in the car.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” — Maya Angelou


2 thoughts on “Do rewards and praise do more harm than good?

  1. Great read! I’m definitely guilty of the reward mentality :/ (LOVE the black and white of Landrie :))

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