Book Review: Punished by Rewards

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  Punished by Rewards  The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes by Alfie Kohn

I ran across this title while researching a charter school here in the Springs (The Classical Academy).  Several books and authors are listed on the TCA website as influencing the ideals and methodology of this relatively new and extremely popular school.  In Punished by Rewards, Kohn puts forth quite a lot of evidence from studies and experience displaying the ways in which rewards hamper intrinsic motivation and in the long run prove counterproductive.

On the ease of using stickers with children, Kohn responds by agreeing that if all you are concerned about is immediate behavior modification, stickers work.

But  “It takes talent and time to help [kids] develop the skill of self-control and the commitment to behave responsibly.”  pg.16

“while people may seem to respond to the goodies we offer, the very need to keep offering these treats to elicit the same behavior may offer a clue as to their long term effects (or lack thereof)”  pg. 17

“If your objective is to get long-term quality in the workplace, to help students become careful thinkers and self-directed learners, or to support children in developing good values, then rewards, like punishments, are absolutely useless.” pg 41

The first section of the book “The Case Against Rewards” is filled with general research and studies going to the psychology of how rewards hurt not just children but all of us.  Then Kohn goes on to explore these dynamics in 3 settings – home, school, and workplace.  Kohn spends a couple of chapters on each setting first setting up the specific harms of each and then fleshing out his preferred method.  Kohn advocates the 3 C’s.

  • Collaboration.  Working as a team rather than fostering competition or as Kohn calls it “how to be alone in a crowd.”  (pg. 214)
  • Content.  Focus on whats most important and avoid busy work.
  • Choice.  Increased freedom increases intrinsic value naturally without need for external rewards.

After these main sections of the book, there is still quite a large chunk of pages left.  Several Appendixes and an extensive section of notes annoted throughout the book (over 100 pages worth!)

I fully recommend this book as it is quite thought provoking and filled with supportive research and challenging ideas.  Kohn does a great job of pulling the reader in and keeping you interested and curious about what he will say next and how he will resolve the tension of ‘okay…what do I do instead?’

Positives:

  • Kohn really challenged me to think outside of the comfortable box of simple rewards/consequences.  I realized that this is often my default and that perhaps there are occasions where other tools might really be more helpful.
  • Kohn supported his hypothesis that relying on rewards/consequences alone does not produce the sort of character development we all strive for.

Negatives:

  • Kohn’s writings felt very extreme to me.  The chapter I disagree the most with would have to be Chapter 6:  The Praise Problem.  While I agree that at times verbal praise can feel condescending and are sometimes not truly deserved, on the whole I truly feel that to take out verbal praise goes a bit too far.
  • I distinctly felt throughout that Kohn was coming to this topic with the premise that we are born good and with intrinsic desires to do good things.  At times his writings lined up with very humanistic thinking that counters what I believe to be truths found in the Bible.

A Few Verses:

Scripture is filled with rewards (blessings & verbal praise) and consequences (curses) from Genesis to Revelation.

The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.  And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”  Genesis 2:15-17

“Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done.  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.  “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city.  Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.   “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.”   The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.   I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. 19 And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.  Revelation 22:12-19

In researching all of this I found a fascinating conversation amongst a variety of people regarding how the God of the Christian Bible would fair if critiqued by the standards put forth by Kohn.  This particular conversation was regarding Kohn’s book entitled Unconditional Parenting but I believe the sentiment still applies.

In practice I was able to use more of the 3 C’s approach coupled with rewards/consequences with my nephews this past week while they stayed with me.  For example, rather than just telling them to stop arguing and that if they didn’t we wouldn’t go to the pool, I spent considerable time and energy trying to help them discover the roots of their arguments and how to be mindful of those things (Collaboration), helping them determine if the topic was truly worth arguing about (Content) and helping them see that they really do have control over their behavior and responses as well as how they resolve arguments (Choices).  It helped me to have tools and while I didn’t stumble upon any secret recipes, I am thankful to have done more than simply react to the situation.

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