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Praise and Positive Reinforcement: Helpful or Hurtful?

posted Mar 8, 2012, 3:17 PM by Christine Gordon   [ updated Mar 8, 2012, 3:20 PM ]

Originally posted on April 24, 2011 by Christine Gordon

Positive reinforcement seems to be a buzzword in education and parenting circles these days: in summary, it is a behavior modification technique that relies on reinforcing preferred behaviors with rewards. Practitioners are encouraged to ‘catch kids being good’ and to give a positive reinforcer (often verbal praise like “good job!”, candy, or progress towards earning a bigger reward) as close to the time of the good behavior as possible. In contrast, when a child behaves ‘inappropriately’ it has become popular to issue a consequence such as taking away a reward, giving a timeout (away from other kids/family members/classroom), etc. On the surface this can make a lot of sense and feel very respectful when these rewards and consequences are revealed ahead of time, but what happens when we begin thinking deeper?

Its time we invest the time and energy in teaching kids the skills of empathy, compassion, decision-making, humility, critical thinking, delayed gratification and causal thinking – and lets not forget the power of role-modeling these!This system of conditioning our children through positive and negative reinforcers quickly develops into manipulation (and not on the part of the kids…). When we treat our children like rats in a maze (though I wouldn’t treat rats like this either), how do we expect them to behave any better? When we ‘teach’ them through rewards and incentives, how do we expect them to ‘perform’ without the presence or promise of a reward? And therein lies the problem. 

There’s a lot of research in behavior science that shows similar conclusions: rewards and incentives actually lesson a person’s ability to complete a given task efficiently and even lessen a person’s interest in the activity (particularly true for children). We are raising a workforce and population that relies on external stimuli for their self-worth and motivation, and that’s a frightening scenario. And, when we smother our children in praise like “good job!” and “great work!”, we must leave them feeling like we’re trying to convince them of something not quite true. A system of rewards and consequences encourages children to please the one in control of the rewards and consequences, rather than being socially productive and responsible for the sake of the community. So instead of viewing children as animals to be trained, how can we move to a system grounded in mutual respect and dignity for all involved? For more on this, check out this post from the Harvard Business Review.

Mirror Neurons from PBS Nova

Lately, my litmus test to decide whether something is praise used as a reward or encouragement that empowers has been that if something would be condescending to an adult, its probably just as condescending to a child. Remember there is no room for shame when growing healthy, self-reliant children! 

Instead of littering kids’ environments with cheerleader-like “good job!”s, save them for the occasions when something great really has been accomplished. In the meantime, empower the (young) people in your life by acknowledging your faith and trust in their own judgement. Provide the space for their own reflections by noticing their behavior, successes, motivations and growth with non-evaluative statements like “I notice you put in a lot of effort on your homework today” or “yes, a trash pick-up day will help the community” or “I have faith in you”.

Kids, and people, do better when they feel better. But positive reinforcement, as it has been manifested in sticker charts, incentives and rewards, only leaves children feeling manipulated, tokenized and less interested in whatever it was we we’re trying to get them to do more of in the first place! This is a controversial issue today, but is one that requires and deserves further examination and thought. Stay tuned!