Rewards: The Other Edge of the Sword

Written by Mandy on May 2nd, 2014

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Behavioral training uses punishments and rewards in order to extract desired behaviors from the subject in question. Numerous studies support that the use of punishment in children has detrimental effects, regardless of whether or not the punishment is physical in nature. Besides dissolving the connection between parent and child, punishments do not help the child to do better or improve the behavior.

Many parents deem this to mean that they should rely on rewards instead. What they fail to realize, and what research also  supports, is that rewards are merely the other side of a two-edged sword.

It may seem benign to offer a reward in order to get a child to do what we want. It seems simple enough. However, by offering a reward for a specific behavior, you are simultaneously offering a punishment in the form of the withheld reward in the event that the desired behavior is not produced. Regardless of form, rewards and punishment both heavily involve extrinsic motivation – fear of punishment or the hope of a reward – in order to coerce others into behaving in a certain way.

Behavioral training does have its place. Used short term, it has helped many people change habits. Used as an extrinsic tool to aid an intrinsic desire, behavioral conditioning has its benefits. However, B.F. Skinner, the founder of behaviorism, along with other noted researchers in the area such as Ivan Pavlov, were adamentaly against the use of behavioral therapy as a parenting technique. Long term, behavioral conditioning erodes a subject’s reliance on intrinsic motivation. Eventually, when the reward or punishment is no longer offered, or no longer is considered substantial by the subject, there is no longer motivation to continue the desired behavior. Reputable behaviorists do not recommend punishments or rewards as the basis for a parenting system.

Lack of intrinsic motivation has aided in many monstrosities over time. When people rely on fear or rewards to motivate them, they are less likely to stand up for what they believe in or to have a strong sense of values. They are more easily manipulated and swayed by others. Some parents may view this as a positive side effect, but that opinion generally changes when the parent is no longer the figure the child turns to for extrinsic motivation. Children who are raised without extrinsic motivation are more likely to have deeply held personal beliefs and to act upon those beliefs, regardless of what other people may think.

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This post has been edited from a version previously published at Living Peacefully with Children.

Photo Credits

Used with permission via Lemsipmatt

About The Author: Mandy

My NPN Posts

Mandy O'Brien is an unschooling mom of five. She's an avid reader and self-proclaimed research fanatic. An active advocate of human rights, Mandy works to provide community programs through volunteer work. She is a co-author of the book Homemade Cleaners, where simple living and green cleaning meet science. She shares a glimpse into her life at Living Peacefully with Children, where she writes about various natural parenting subjects and is working to help parents identify with and normalize attachment parenting through Attachment Parents Get Real.

One Response to Rewards: The Other Edge of the Sword

  1. Amy Phoenix  

    Thank you for this, Mandy. When I first heard about the effects of rewards and punishments I could feel how such measures played out in my own life growing up (and into adulthood – I’m still working out the kinks).

    I appreciate these notes…

    “Behavioral training does have its place. Used short term, it has helped many people change habits. Used as an extrinsic tool to aid an intrinsic desire, behavioral conditioning has its benefits. ”

    I think this speaks to the person’s own desire, as in if someone is working to meet a goal. Certainly if a family is working towards goals together a special reward for consistent effort isn’t actually a punishment in disguise. It’s more of a celebration. I’ve veered away from such because I don’t want to use extrinsic motivation, but in a world where there are extrinsic motivators I would rather our family have the opportunity to use them wisely than not at all. Just something I’ve been pondering lately. Total restriction of rewards may not be so helpful.

    Also, we have one child who really needs some dental work done and I’ve been thinking about how to utilize rewards as part of our plan. Most of the plan is allowing her the choice right now and doing some therapy and meditation to work through anxiety from previous dental experiences. I don’t want to throw out the potential benefits of rewards, though, simply because they can be overused. If she seems to find rewards beneficial in this situation I am okay with her choice.

    I also appreciate this, which I think communicates the gist of your whole post…

    “Reputable behaviorists do not recommend punishments or rewards as the basis for a parenting system.”

    I agree completely. Punishments don’t help a person learn about themselves, only what another will do to them if they don’t meet expectations. Similarly, rewards can lead to someone expecting such all of the time and external rewards may or may not always be available when we succeed. We need to be able to feel good about our accomplishments even when no reward is given. We can internally reward ourselves. :)

    Thanks again for this insightful post.

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