Punishing with Rewards

punishing with rewards

A fishbowl full of candy sat on the third-grade teacher’s desk.

”When you’ve finished your math assignment you can choose a piece of candy,” Ms. Marsh said as she handed out worksheets.

All but two of the students went to work. Tamika and Jennifer looked out the window, math sheets untouched. Tamika began her calculations as the first students turned in papers. Jennifer never picked up her pencil.

At lunch, I sat down and visited with the girls about what I had observed.

”Jennifer,” I said, ”why didn’t you work on your math assignment?”

”Well,” Jennifer said, ”I don’t like math, and I don’t like that kind of candy. So why bother?”

Tamika joined in. ”I like math, but I don’t like being treated like a baby.” Her voice changed to a high-pitched singsong. ”Here baby, baby. Do your mathy-wathy and you can have some candy. Okay, baby?”

Jennifer said, ”Yeah, that’s kind of how it feels to me.”

Tamika continued. ”So I challenge myself. I wait until the first person turns in work, and then I see if I can get it done, 100 percent correct, by the time the fifth person gets to Ms. Marsh’s desk. And I don’t like that candy either.”

Alfie Kohn in his book, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and other Bribes, documents how rewarding behavior can create the same kind of discouragement, anger and resentment that is created when punishing behavior. Incentives rarely motivate, and as in the case of Jennifer and Tamika, actually become disincentives.

Kohn recommends that instead of ”doing to” our children to change their behavior, we should instead concentrate on ”working with” our children to help them understand their personal or intrinsic motivations.

Kohn suggests we can create in our homes and classrooms conditions for authentic motivation by doing four things: Watch, listen, talk and think.

Watch. Watching means we don’t keep our children under constant surveillance. We look for problems that need to be solved and help our children solve them. Tamika’s parents had taught her how to make a game out of something that she might not be motivated to do.

Listen. We listen to our children and take their point of view seriously and respectfully. We try to imagine how the situation looks from their point of view. Ms. Marsh, in her desire to motivate her students, had neglected to listen for her students’ point of view.

Talk. Talking actually means for us as adults to talk less and ask more questions. We need to encourage our children to talk to us so that we will know what we are doing right, where we need to improve and how we might change. As a visiting classroom observer, I was able to ask Tamika and Jennifer about their math and get important feedback.

Think. We need to think about the long-term effects of our strategies when we offer extrinsic rewards. We also need to think about the origins of our strategies. Are our strategies based on a preference of using power in our relationships, or a reaction to being controlled by others? In Ms. Marsh’s situation, she had learned about the candy reward system in an in-service presentation. Her school was trying to improve scores on their state-mandated math test. Test scores, which did not improve with candied motivation.

If we are committed to helping our children be able and willing to do their best, we need to watch, listen, talk and think to be sure our strategies are building intrinsic motivation and not punishing by rewards.

Problem Solving Tools To Use With Children

5 Responses to “Punishing with Rewards”

  1. Ruth Reynolds

    I’ve been struggling with how to make games out of finishing activities without making it a competition. For awhile, I would say, “Ok, let’s see if you can before your sister.” It’s obvious that this makes it a competition and resulted in hurt feelings if she wasn’t “first.” Common activities that are hard to motivate are getting in the car, getting ready etc. Often times, my older daughter (almost 4), prefers to stay home in her pajamas than leave, even if it’s something fun like the zoo! If I do decide to stay home, later, she will then ask to go. And of course, it doesn’t work later. Any thoughts?

    • Ruth,


      A couple of thoughts: To get everyone moving in the direction you need them to go, sing. Here’s a Kids Talk article about that:

      What I used to do at home to foster cooperation and teamwork is create a team reward. Something like: After we get the house cleaned up, let’s do something fun like (get input and fill in the blank here…make cookies, play a board game, go to the park.)

      Or play Beat the Clock: Do you think we can get the playroom cleaned up in 15 minutes? Let’s set the timer and see what we can do. When the room is cleaned up then we can have lunch.

      When our children are reluctant to do something, I find using the Five Why’s technique to be helpful. Read about it here:

      You might also enjoy my free workshop, Finding Motivation the Montessori Way:

      Ruth, hope this helps.

  2. Maren, this is a terrific reminder to watch-listen-talk-think rather than pontificate out of exasperation. Our newly 5-yr-old told us just yesterday, “I’m tired of talking about this,” meaning he was tired of listening to us go on about his choices he makes at school. The issue wasn’t math paperwork in school; it was “unsafe” behavior combined with mob mentality and showing off on the playground at school. Unsure how to help a kiddo who says, “I don’t know” to the question, “What can you do instead?” — it feels like an invitation to blab on about what he can/should/must do… Yikes.

    • Stacy,

      Yes, it’s amazing how our children will turn off to what we are saying.

      That’s why it is so critical to listen. Which is actually a very difficult thing to do!

      In my free Connecting With Children workshop in the lesson entitled, Meeting The Goal Of Withdrawal, I show a listening technique called Ask Only Questions.

      You might also enjoy my free email course, Constructive Communication, which consists of a series of ten weekly emails, each with a communication tip. Click here to find out more.

      Remember, talk less, listen more. Listen more by asking only questions.

  3. I realize I’m not talking about rewards or games here… Just to say a light touch is definitely warranted. Would love to make a game of it so he feels his parents are his biggest support. Big question: How?


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