Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Discipline Without Rewards

(Originally posted at Rational Jenn)

A few weeks ago, an interesting discussion began in the comments section of my On Children, Parents and the Use of Force post. A few astute and thoughtful readers brought up the issue of rewards, and suggested that I ought to clarify my thoughts on that due to some ambiguity with the way I was using the term. I've been thinking this over quite a lot since then, and I think I'm ready to address it.

Please know that while I am still firmly anti-reward, I'm still thinking through my explanation of my reasons. This is a first attempt (and I'm going to TRY to make it short-ish). I've no doubt that I'll think of other things to add and if you find anything confusing, please let me know in the comments of this post.

The post on the use of force was my first real attempt to pull together some of the ideas I've been writing about over the last year or so into one spot. One thing I left out of it though (I know! It could have been even longer!), and which deserves repeating for the benefit of this post (and others), is why I'm trying to think all of this out, and be so explicit. Here, I'll try to bullet point, maybe that'll be more succinct:

  • I want my children to be happy in their lives.
  • In order to be happy, you need to be virtuous (independent, rational, just, honest, have integrity and pride, and be productive).
  • Therefore, I want them to understand these virtues, practice them, and see examples of them in our home. Hopefully when they're older, they will embrace them as we have.

In other words, just as I should do my absolute best to make sure my kids acquire educational tools that they will need as independent adults--reading and math--I should do my absolute best to make sure they acquire the virtues they will need to be happy.

Also important to keep in mind:

  • Children are learning all the time--in addition to reading and math, they are learning how to act.
  • Children have free will, but are predisposed (at least when young!) to give their parents' ideas a try, or at least a hearing.
  • Children learn by watching others, by copying, by trying, from success and failure, through the choices they make.
  • Children are neither irrational adults nor highly intelligent animals. They are humans who are learning to be rational.

With me? (I hope?) All right, moving on.

One question I've been asking myself since I got pregnant with our first child is: How, as an Objectivist who is also a parent, is the best way to raise my kids so that they have a lot of experience using the virtues?

I want my children, at the time they leave home and head out on their own (sniff), to have seen for themselves (not because I said so!) the benefits that come with being honest and productive, etc. Hopefully when they're adults, they'll each make a conscious decision to pursue their own values according to those virtues (that is, become moral people). I think if they do that, then they'll be happy.

One way they'll learn about the virtues for themselves is through getting lots and lots of practice. As I've written previously, I think it's best to let kids experience the consequences of their choices and actions--for good or ill. It's good experience and they will learn something!

However, there are times when the full consequences shouldn't happen--when the child's life, limb, or long-term health is at risk of serious or irreparable harm. Or when the rights of others are being violated (or will probably be violated). That's where parenting happens--to protect them from terrible consequences (running out into traffic), or to protect someone else from a rights-violation (one child hitting another).

Adults get to experience the full-on effects of their decisions (rational or irrational). If adults want to risk their lives doing something foolhardy like, I don't know, jump off a house roof into a shallow swimming pool during an electrical storm, then they will experience the consequences of doing that. Children, just learning rationality, deserve to be protected from the consequences of such decisions. The parenting safety net helps get them to adulthood, at which time they'll be free to make crazy decisions like that. :o)

So then the question becomes, is there a way I can set appropriate limits and enforce them as necessary without interfering too much with their chances to learn about virtuous behavior? The discipline method that I have found that best suits my goals is non-punitive discipline, aka "Positive Discipline" or "positive parenting."

And now we--finally!--get to the point of this post! (Hooray!) I've already written about how we don't punish our kids here, so I won't be talking much about traditional punishment in this post.

Okay. Rewards. Part of the problem in the Force post is that the word "reward" has many connotations. So let me define exactly what I'm talking about. Alfie Kohn, in his book Punished By Rewards, defines rewarding as a parent saying to a child "Do X and then you'll get Y." If you can put the interaction into If-Then terms, then it might be a reward. That is what we do not do around here with our kids--promise them something in order to get them to behave in a certain way.

Parental intent and manner is perhaps the most important factor in whether or not any given interaction between parent and child is the kind of reward I am advocating against. How a situation is handled by Mom can make a non-reward situation into a reward situation. (Back in the summer, I wrote about a time when I enforced a limit with Morgan--she lost the use of her art supplies for a day because she wasn't helping put them away. I could have enforced that in a punishing way, but I didn't. This same idea applies to rewards.)

I think I'm better at definition-by-example, so maybe this will help clarify what I am talking about (I hope!):

Rewards are:

  • A piece of candy or a toy each time a kid does something desirable: If you pee in the potty, I'll give you an M&M.
  • A gold star system for certain behaviors: If you brush your teeth without whining for 10 nights in a row, you'll get a prize.
  • Promises of future extra privileges (tv time, a fun outing) in exchange for good behavior now: Look, be quiet now and you'll get to play a video game later.

Rewards are not:

  • Celebrating an achievement with a child who is clearly proud of her achievement: Hooray! You used the potty all day today!
  • Something good that happens as a natural result of a kid's behavior: No cavities at the dentist check up. (This "natural consequence" may be rewarding, certainly, but it is not something provided to the child by Mom and Dad.)
  • A list of things a person needs to remember to do: Keeping a bedtime checklist is something we've done as a tool to help people remember all of their bedtime tasks--using the potty, brush teeth, pick up clothes in room, etc.
  • A negotiated-ahead-of-time (with both parties, kid and adult, having equal negotiating power) trade: Dad: I know you want to play a computer game with me, but I have to rake the leaves now. What if we make a deal? You help me out now and then we'll get to play the game quicker.
  • Doing something to make a not-so-fun job more fun: Cleaning up time isn't our favorite thing in the whole world. Why don't we put some music on to listen to while we're working?
I hope those examples help distinguish between If-Then rewards (or reward systems) and situations that might be rewarding. Another way to look at it is if the fun thing or system under discussion can be taken away by the parent and used to punish or threaten the child for not behaving, that's the kind of rewarding I don't use. So for the purposes of the rest of this post, please know that I'm talking about If-Then Rewards.

Why I Don't Reward

My primary objection to using rewards is that the process involves a kind of mental bait-and-switch tactic. It takes (some or all of) the child's attention away from what needs to be done and why and places (some or all of) his attention onto the reward. In encouraging the child to switch his focus away from the rational reasons he ought to engage in a certain behavior, he is losing a valuable opportunity to learn some deeper ethical lessons. (And I really think getting practical experience in using the virtues helps a child gain a better understanding of their benefits. A child will learn the value of honesty much more effectively by trying it out--or not--than by hearing me talk about how great honesty is.)

If-Then Rewarding, while certainly effective in getting a child to act in a particular way, doesn't reinforce the more abstract ideas of independence and responsibility and other great things I think my kids need to practice and understand thoroughly before heading out into the world. Kohn gives the example of using a reward to get a kid to take out the garbage. The kid takes out the garbage and gets his reward. The action has been performed and now everyone is happy. He's learned where to put the garbage, but he's learned nothing about responsibility, which is more important overall than the learning the physical action of taking out the garbage.

Now, if the kid is refusing to take out the garbage, and I simply enforce the limit and help him do it (by putting the bag in his hand and walking him out to the garbage can), he may or may not learn something about responsibility, that is very true. But his attention will remain on the task and the reasons for it and the fact that it's important enough that Mom is willing to help him do it. There is nothing shiny to take his attention off of these things. If he is rewarded (bribed) to do this job, he is more likely to miss the responsibility message entirely, or mistakenly integrate the idea of responsibility as "something I take care of in order to get a prize."

I want my kids to learn to do the right things because they are the right things to do. I do not want my kids to learn to do the right things because I give them a prize if they do it (or punish them for not doing it). This kind of "moral practice" will pay off for them in the long-run.

(Also, there is abundant evidence that reward systems, for kids and adults, do not produce lasting changes in behavior. There's a lot of this discussed in Kohn's book. That falls into the realm of psychology I believe; my objections are primarily philosophical.)

Enforcing Limits--the only Parental Action Necessary

I've tried to make the above point many times, but never so explicitly. Many parents (including me, once upon a time) think that in order to drive a lesson home, something needs to be done to the child. So the parent enforces a limit and then doles out a punishment. Or she enforces a limit by offering the child a reward in exchange for the desired within-the-limit behavior.

Kids WILL learn how to behave through the enforcement of limits. That is all the parenting intervention necessary.

I like to compare limit-setting to training wheels. The training wheels are there to help the kid learn how to correct his balance and protect him a little at the same time. Too far one way . . . oops! . . . the training wheels hit and the kid is (usually) prevented from tipping all the way over, and can correct his balance and lean the other way. Over time, the training wheels get raised, as the kid needs less and less correction and protection. After a while, they're removed altogether because he's gained the skill and can be safe.

There is no need for there to be an additional punishment or reward for learning to ride a bike. If the kid leans too far to one side, there's no mechanism on the training wheels that reaches up and smacks his hand to teach him a lesson, to reinforce the fact that he made a mistake. There's no automatic candy dispenser that doles out M & M's for every tenth of a mile traveled without an overcorrection, in order to encourage him to stay perfectly balanced. No, the training wheels set a limit and enforce it, and protect him some all at the same time. And that's how I see my role as parent--set and enforce (rational) limits, while protecting them (and others) at the same time. Nothing more.

So how about a real-life example? I think anyone reading this will probably agree that it's important for people to wear their seatbelts in the car regularly. (And if you don't, then just play along for a moment. :o) )

Ryan sits in a booster seat with a regular shoulder belt now. He's tested the "Wear your Seatbelt in the Car" limit a few times, unbuckling himself while the car is moving. Here are some of the things I've done to enforce our limit:

  • Sat in the back with him and held the buckle in place.
  • Moved him from the back row to the middle row so that I can more easily see if he's unbuckled himself, and so that one of us can reach back there and hold the buckle if necessary.
  • Pulled the car over and stopped and waited until he buckled back up.
I didn't punish him by taking away a toy for each unbuckling incident. Nor did I give him any kind of prize for remaining buckled. I simply enforced the limit (over his often loud objections) and explained (usually in a calmer time) my reasons for this limit.

He now remains buckled all the time. He has learned and respects this limit. He knows how important it is. He knows that if he tests it again that I will do one or more of the above things each and every time. Again. He knows that I will not stop doing those things until I can trust him to remain buckled. He knows this because I am consistent in enforcing this limit. He knows that I will enforce this limit with his sister and brother when they move into booster seats. He knows that this is his responsibility and willingly manages it, usually without any reminders.

Another quick example--Epipens. Ryan is very responsible about remembering his Epipens. I have not had to develop a reward system designed to encourage him to remember them. We simply talk about it, remind each other to bring them, and if we forget them, then we have to leave the fun place we were heading to (like the playground) and return home.

There's more I'd like to say about this issue, but I think I'll stop here for now. I hope I've made my point about rewards more clearly. I can think of a few more reward-related posts, and now that my background thinking is out here in the blogosphere, it will be easier (for me) to write more specific posts on this topic. Oh, wait, there is one more thing.

In the comments section of the post on the use of force, there was some objection to my statement that rewards are a kind of coercion. According to one dictionary, "coerce" can mean: to compel to an act or choice; or to achieve by force or threat. I think these two definitions (the second and third as found in that particular online dictionary) apply to If-Then Rewards. To reiterate one of the main points of my post on force--there is a time and place for parents to compel a child to an act or a choice (enforcing a limit). When a parent uses If-Then Rewards to compel a child to do a particular something, that is one method of setting and enforcing a limit. That is the sense in which I was using coercion. [UPDATE: I am currently re-thinking the use of this word per some feedback in the comments. I think that the imbalance of power that naturally exists in the parent-child relationship makes this an accurate word. However, I am wary of muddying the waters where this concept is concerned, especially among non-Objectivists, so I'm re-thinking this. Thanks.]

Questions and comments (especially the thought-provoking kind) are welcome. :o)

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