A mini Punished by Rewards primer

“I loved Punished by Rewards and think Kohn’s work is a very good place to start. He’s not completely non-coercive, but he gives… a great compilation of the empirical research on learning and motivation.”
– Catherine B.


From the archives: The original post was posted on 1st October 1996

[From a message posted earlier the same day:]

A poster wrote:

“I read Punished by Rewards and thought it was very good. Of course I was hearing what I wanted to hear.”

I loved Punished by Rewards and think Kohn’s work is a very good place to start. He’s not completely non-coercive, but he gives the theoretical underpinnings and a great compilation of the empirical research on learning and motivation. I highly recommend this book.

[From a second post the same day:]

Look what I just happen to have, but had forgotten about. A mini Kohn Punished by Rewards primer for the uninitiated.

Excerpted from Alfie Kohn’s Punished By Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993

“How do we punish children? Let us count the ways. We incarcerate them: children are sent to their rooms, teenagers are ‘grounded’ and forbidden to leave the house, students are sentenced to ‘detention,’ and all may be forcibly isolated through ‘time-out’ procedures. We use physical violence on them: corporal punishment in public schools is still permitted in most states (though long since abandoned by most of the world’s developed nations) and spanking is still approved (and used) by the overwhelming majority of American parents. We humiliate children by yelling at or criticizing them in public. We withdraw or withhold privileges, deny them food or companionship, deliberately ignore them, prevent them from doing things they enjoy. At school, we subject them to F’s and zeroes, additional assignments, playground citations, trips to the principal’s office, and suspensions—all of which may be threatened in advance or explicitly described on a hierarchical list of ‘consequences,’ the approved euphemism for punishment.”

– Chapter 9: Bribes for Behaving: Why Behaviorism Doesn’t Help Children Become Good People, p. 165

All punishment, by which I mean any reliance on power to make something unpleasant happen to a child as a way of trying to alter that child’s behavior, teaches that when you are bigger or stronger than someone else, you can use that advantage to force the person to do what you want.”

– p. 167

“The root of punishment is coercion. […] Even ‘a seemingly benign and kindly form of control, to bend rather than break a child’s will…[is] unlikely to create a genuine sense of autonomy in the child, or a sense of choice and responsibility,’ observes Philip Greven. ‘The child still [has] to accept the parent’s will as the child’s own.’ Piaget put this point more succinctly: ‘punishment … renders autonomy of conscience impossible.”

– p. 168

“Adults are defined principally as enforcers, obliged to prove that they follow through on their threats. Children are encouraged to focus in a legalistic way on exactly what behavior is covered by each rule, how the rule will be applied, what circumstances may create exceptions, and so forth. Some will be tempted to test the limits to see what they can get away with. And as with any other punitive arrangement, children learn more about the use of coercion than about how or why to act responsibly.”

– p. 171

“[W]e want children not to do unethical, hurtful things because they know these things are wrong and because they can imagine how such actions will affect other people. Punishment doesn’t contribute at all to the development of such concerns; it teaches that if they are caught doing something forbidden, they will have to suffer the consequences. The reason not to be a bully is that someone may punch you back; the reason not to rob a bank is that you may go to jail. The emphasis is on what will happen to them. This represents the lowest level of moral reasoning, one associated with very young children, yet it is the punishing adult who seems to be thinking in these terms here.”

– p. 172

“Do we really want to pursue an adversarial relationship with a child? […]
           In my view, there are two fundamentally different ways one can respond to a child who does something wrong. One is to impose a punitive consequence. Another is to see the situation as a ‘teachable moment,’ an opportunity to educate or to solve a problem together. […]
           The latter represents a different way of seeing as much as a different way of reacting…”

– Chapter 12: Good Kids Without Goodies, p. 231

“When one approach to solving problems together doesn’t produce results, it makes sense to modify the approach, not to abandon the idea of solving problems in favor of using threats and coercion.
           It would be an exaggeration to say that even a single application of the latter is an unredeemable tragedy. […] There is a difference between forgiving ourselves an occasional blunder and refusing to admit that certain approaches are blunders.”

– p. 233

“[F]ew parents react to a child’s disobedience by wondering whether they should rethink what it was they told the child to do. If they seek advice, it is typically only to figure out how to change the child’s behavior.”

– pp. 234-35

“The best way to characterize the alternative to punishment and rewards is as ‘mutual problem solving,’ the heart of which is collaboration.
           Explanation is the most limited version of collaboration, and it is the very least we owe a child. […]
           Ideally, however, collaboration will not be limited to an adult’s explaining to a child why the latter has to (or cannot) do something. It is instead a process of making a decision together.”

– p. 236

“One is repeatedly struck by the absurd spectacle of adults who talk passionately about the need for kids to become ‘self-disciplined’ and to ‘take responsibility for their own behavior’—all the while ordering children around. […] The way a child learns how to make decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions.”

– p. 249

“In fact, an emphasis on following directions, respecting authority (regardless of whether that respect has been earned), and obeying the rules (regardless of whether they are reasonable) teaches a disturbing lesson.”

– p. 249

See also:

Catherine B., 1996, ‘A mini Punished by Rewards primer’, https://takingchildrenseriously.com/a-mini-punished-by-rewards-primer