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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.

Book Review: Searching for Mary Poppins

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Searching for Mary Poppins: Women Write About the Intense Relationship Between Mothers and Nannies  Edited by Susan Davis and Gina Hyams

The forward and introduction to this book drew me in.  “Sometimes a whole week goes by in which I never see my nanny.”  A sentiment I can echo as there have been weeks go by where I only see one of the parental figures of a household where one just works seemingly endless hours- both moms and dads.  “..themes familiar to those of us who outsource some of our parenting:  gratitude, guilt, resentment, relief.”  Also a sentiment I can identify with as I have felt each of these emanate from nearly all mothers.

The book is comprised of 24 essays written by mothers about their experiences with women in the nanny profession.  In some ways the experiences vary quite a lot.  Nannies come from all ethnic, financial and familial backgrounds, although the majority in this book are lower class immigrants.  Some young but mostly middle aged and above; one male but mostly female.

In the forward, Pamela Kruger is quoted “In talking to other mothers, I quickly found out that many of us had been dumped unexpectedly by our nannies…”  I was almost offended.  And as I read on, I was quite upset to find this statement to be true!  Many nannies leaving their families, the precious children in their care, with no warning, explanation or forwarding information.  Difficult to read.

This is a very thoughtful book and has challenged me on many fronts.  I find myself wondering what my previous employers would say…cringing at the thought of some and encouraged by what I hope others would say.  I have not been a perfect nanny by any stretch of the word, but I hope and pray that I am learning and growing and becoming a better nanny every day.  I find myself questioning the mere existence of nannies in our culture.  Nearly every mother in this collection of essays, acknowledged that at the end of the day, they are who the child needs and longs for the most.  To become a nanny is to purposefully place yourself as second best- and try to be second best as best you can.  This bothers me.  But it seems to be a necessity of our culture.  Mothers work; Babies need caretakers.  So what characteristics make up the ‘best second best’?  From what I’ve experienced and found throughout the pages of this book, I propose the following.

  • Engage with the children in your care from moment one of the interview to beyond your final day at work.  Don’t ‘act like a professional’; show that you are passionate about kids.  Parents don’t like it when you come for an interview but don’t engage with their child almost as much as they are bothered by a nanny who leaves their child wondering why the nanny left and where she went.  (If this one is particularly challenging for you, then perhaps being a nanny isn’t the best career choice!)
  • Be honest and generous in relaying your professional and personal life.  While maintaining some boundaries, its important to try to keep a balance between how much you know about them and how much they know about you.  Withholding when they have little choice but to divulge only causes suspicion that you have something to hide.  Dishonesty on either side results in a painful situation when you are this deep into each others lives.
  • Punctuality and dependability are important for a reason!…Even if the mom or dad works from home and no matter if they are healing cancer or taking a nap.  Its not about the minutes but about character.  This is one of the few aspects of your career that is observable by your employer.  A nanny is rarely observed on the job and even more rarely has anything to show for her hours of work.  Being where you say when you say speaks volumes about your quality of care.
  • Contracts are a must in order to keep expectations and needs clear on both sides.  A good contract contains a detailed job description, clearly laid out compensation package and mutually respected position ending procedures.  To begin a job without any of these discussed and agreed upon is a breeding ground for disappointment and difficulty.  Once the contract is signed, stick to it.

Searching for Mary Poppins is worth the read if you are at all interested in understanding the nanny phenomena that is growing in our culture.  I fear that it is a bit more negative than positive in its portrayal of nannies and that it doesn’t incorporate nannies like myself or several of the friends I have made who also strive to be excellent nannies.  At the end of the day, the collection of painful stories in this book made me wish that there was not a need for nannies.  That families were close knit enough to care for their own children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews.  That more women were willing and able to make the sacrifice in their careers for the sake of their child’s first few life-molding years.  But as long as great nannies are needed and sought, I will do everything I can to be one and facilitate others toward that worthy end.  To be the best second best possible.