This episode goes into three “Motivation Killers”: Punishments, Rewards, and Praise. (Although praise is actually a type of reward).
Now that corporal punishment (physical abuse/hitting) is very rare and illegal in most states, punishment is usually about taking something away from a child (called a negative punishment). Punishments you may have seen in schools:
“You didn’t do your work, you don’t get to go out to recess.”
“You didn’t do well enough, you get an F.”
“You get a zero.”
“You have a missing notice that has to go home and get signed by your parents.”
Now, that last one can also be a type of communication between parents and teachers and doesn’t need to be punitive. It really depends on the teacher’s mindset. Do they want to punish or just communicate? Is the note given privately and with empathy or is the kid put on blast in front of the whole class? Is the tone of voice kind or upset?
Similarly, at home we tend to not spank much anymore (there is a lot of evidence around the harm that spanking causes) but we will take things away (negative punishment):
“You didn’t do your homework, you don’t get to watch TV” (or ride your bike, or play on the tablet, etc)
All of these punishments send the message that you believe the child has willfully chosen to do the “wrong thing” or to not do well enough on an assignment, etc. All of these punishments create a power struggle between child and adult. All of these punishments can cause kids to feel like they are bad or dumb.
We can also flip some punishments to be rewards: “you don’t get to watch TV until you do your homework.”
Or we can use bribes, “If you read this page to me, you get an M&M!”
We’re letting kids know that doing the homework or reading is not worth doing unless they are being “paid” to do it. “If you do A, I’ll give you B” let’s the child know that A is a bad thing and B is a good thing. If they already like A, they quickly start to realize that they’re not supposed to.
If your kid loved eating broccoli, you could kill that love pretty quickly by telling them they only get ice cream if they eat their broccoli and then one day stop giving them ice cream.
Reading is a wonderful and pleasurable activity for people to engage in. Writing, mathematics, athletic endeavors, and playing music are also. If we start rewarding a child for engaging in any of these, we are sending the opposite message. We are telling kids that they shouldn’t like these. They should only like TV, tablets, candy, etc.
Because I never want my young children to lose their love of books and reading, I will never bribe or otherwise reward them for reading with me. Reading is already intrinsically motivating and enjoyable.
Praise is a specific type of reward. Saying, “good job” tells a child that they are being evaluated. It lets the child know that there is a right and wrong way to do things and that they better be careful not to do the wrong thing.
This can kill creativity. If a child comes up to you with their drawing and you say it’s a beautiful drawing, expect to see lots more just like it. They’re less likely to risk drawing something different because you might not like it. They’ll stick with the safe drawing.
If a child is working on writing, and you tell them, “great hook!” you are giving a specific praise, but you are still evaluating them and they’re likely to use the same type of hook in their next piece of writing. (A hook is the beginning of the writing that grabs a reader’s attention)
Keep in mind that many famous, award-winning authors were rejected by dozens of publishers before being picked up and then going on to become famous. Those professionals didn’t think that book was good enough but now it’s being taught in classes on literature. It doesn’t matter what those particular professionals thought of the book and it really doesn’t matter whether or not you like the hook.
It does matter whether or not your child is able to learn and grow from what they are doing. It does matter how they feel about their writing. So, ask them questions:
“How do you feel about the hook?”
“What part do you feel you really nailed?”
“What are you going to work on improving next time?”
“Are you aware of the conventions around dialogue? May I show you how we mark dialogue in a text?” OR “Do you know how most English writers show when characters are speaking to each other? May I show you?”
You can guide and teach without your child feeling evaluated.
What to do instead
Motivation is tricky. In Alfie Kohn’s book, Punished by Rewards, Kohn goes deep into why rewards are problematic. And yet, he doesn’t offer much in the way of what to do instead. And that’s because it’s rather complicated and there aren’t any easy and quick answers.
Check out Season 2 for more ideas on how to motivate kids to read, write, do math, and more!