Thoughts on discipline: the problems with reward programmes

For a while now I've been thinking I really ought to write a post about my thoughts on discipline, but shying away from it because it's the kind of thing that can so easily turn into the kind of preachy this-is-how-you-should-do-it post that I hate.  However… the latest session of the Webster-Stratton course was on the topic of rewards, which is one on which I differ quite a bit from what they teach.  The one before that was on praise, on which I don't differ so much from what they say but do have some yes-buts coming largely from the whole rewards controversy.  I've been trying to write posts about those sessions that explain how and why I disagree with them, but, in the end, decided to start off by writing a separate post on the topic of how I see discipline and how I came to think about it in that way, in order to give the background on where I'm coming from on this.

Several years ago, I came across an author by the name of Alfie Kohn.  I came across bits and pieces of his on-line stuff here and there, and eventually ended up getting hold of a copy of his book Unconditional Parenting, analysing the way that society sees discipline and looking at problems with it.  It was fascinating – eye-opening, thought-provoking, paradigm-shifting.  This is not an attempt to give a detailed review or an endorsement of every single point he makes, but a quick summary of the points that most struck me about it.

Discipline systems, Kohn points out, are traditionally constructed around getting children to act in the way we think they should act by means of punishments for acting differently and/or rewards for acting in ways considered acceptable.  Newer systems pride themselves on being less harsh with the punishments (none of that nasty old spanking – time out, that's the way to go!) or more weighted towards the rewards (praise and stickers for good behaviour – so much better than just punishing bad behaviour!), but these changes are just tweaking of the basic concept of using incentives to get children to act in a particular way.  And, if you look at short-term behaviour as your outcome, these are indeed effective ways of doing things – punishments do work well in persuading people to avoid a particular behaviour (or at least to avoid getting caught doing it), and rewards work even better in terms of getting the behaviour we want.

But how does this fit in with what we want for our children long-term?  Surely what we actually want is to raise our children to have moral values and an internal moral compass and to think for themselves about the information and the problems that life presents to them?  How does that fit with the mechanistic, short-term, what's-in-it-for-me focus of punishment and reward systems?  Is this teaching our children the skills they should have to best get through life?

Kohn (in that book and another of his that I've read, Punished By Rewards) cites a stack of studies that raise concerns over the longer-term effects not just of punishment-based systems, but over reward-based systems.  There is, apparently, considerable evidence that rewarding people for doing something is likely to decrease their overall intrinsic interest in doing that thing – rewards, it seems, just give people the message that the task in question is something that's unrewarding enough in itself to need an external incentive for anyone to want to do it.  So that has worrying implications for all those 'stickers for books read' type of programmes that schools love – while they certainly get children to read more books, they do so by giving children the message that books aren't really that enjoyable for their own sake.  There is also evidence that rewarding people for performance can actually harm performance – it can make people less creative, less willing to take risks, as they learn to focus on what will be most likely to earn them the reward rather than on the satisfaction of completing the task as well as possible for its own sake.  And, most worryingly, there are apparently a number of studies showing that rewarding moral behaviour may make people less likely to make moral choices in the future.  Rewards give the message that doing nice things is something you do for a reward, not for the satisfaction of knowing you've made someone else happy.

How good the research on that last is, I don't know; most of it I haven't read myself, and quantity of studies isn't necessarily an indicator of quality.  Long-term moral development is far harder to measure than short-term interest in a task, so there are no doubt plenty of weaknesses that studies in that area might have.  However, Kohn's description of the research, plus the basic question "Do I really want to teach my children that the main reason to act a particular way is because there's something in it for them?" was still enough to be a turning point for me in the whole way I thought about discipline.

Kohn is great on the explanations of why our usual approach is wrong, but less good on the practical nitty-gritty of how, in that case, we should go about managing day-to-day parenting issues.  Some of that gap was filled, for me, by Faber and Mazlish's unutterably superb if-you're-going-to-buy-just-one-parenting-book-make-it-this-one How To Talk So Kids Can Listen And Listen So Kids Can Talk and their other books.  I also came across posts on the Internet from parents trying a new style of discipline that's referred to as either 'positive discipline' or 'gentle discipline', although I don't think either of those names really sums up how that approach is different from the reward/punishment based approach – still, if you're looking for more on that style of discipline, those are the names you'll find it under. 

Finally, searching Yahoo Groups to find a group of parents I could join after the newsgroups I'd been part of for the early years of my parenting crumbled under the weight of the spambots, I stumbled on the Positive Parenting Discipline group, and have been there ever since, soaking up their tips and advice.  Not only is this a big help in practical terms, but it's helped me formulate the philosophy behind this new type of discipline in terms of what it's about, not just what it isn't about.  I should say that this isn't any sort of Official Statement On Behalf Of The Positive Discipline Movement, or anything – I don't claim to speak for everyone who tries to follow this style of discipline, but this is how I see it and how I would put it.

Positive discipline, gentle discipline, non-punitive discipline, or whatever you want to call this concept, is – for me – about teaching children the skills they will eventually need to manage their own discipline and their own lives as moral, independent-minded, compassionate adults.  There are a lot of ways in which we can do this (which, of course, is precisely why it took a long time and a lot of reading for me to be able to articulate this philosophy – this way of doing things just doesn't lend itself to easy parenting-programme-style soundbites like 'Praise everything they do right, ignore them when they don't, one minute of time-out for every year of the child's life as a back-up') and it's beyond the scope of this post to go into them, but that principle is what underlies them.

The other key principle that runs through this form of discipline is something that isn't unique to it – it often gets overlooked in discussions of conventional discipline, but plenty of the parenting experts who work from a reward-and-punishment paradigm still recognise the importance of this one (hence, for example, the Webster-Stratton course starting with three whole sessions on play and communicating with your child).  This principle is connection – maintaining and strengthening the powerful connection to your child that means that, ultimately, parenting isn't just the battle of wills that it could often be mistaken for on reading some of the parenting books on the market, but is also a loving relationship between two people who are (however easy it may be to lose sight of this in the middle of heated battles about bedtime) actually very well motivated to help and support and co-operate with each other.

For an example of how all this works in practice, see this post that I wrote a few months back, on sorting out a sibling clash.  Now, imagine that I'd instead reacted to that same incident by telling the two of them they could have a sticker/treat/sweet if they stopped fighting.  In the case of my two I don't think that would even have worked – neither would have had enough self-control, in the heat of the moment, to calm down for the promise of a goody.  But, even if it did, what would it have done about helping them with the skills of negotiation and compromise that were actually what they needed there?  When I helped them with those skills, we got somewhere.

So, that's a quick outline of how I approach discipline and why.  Feel free to come back twenty years later and see how well it worked out for us all.


1 Comment

Filed under Deep Thought, Sacred hamburger

One response to “Thoughts on discipline: the problems with reward programmes

  1. Becky

    Have you followed Kohn’s citations? It may not matter if the parenting philosophy works for you, but I was inspired by Unconditional Parenting, and then disappointed when I realized that many times he misrepresented the conclusions of the literature, or the consensus of the psychological/educational community. In any case, it didn’t work for us and our circumstances.

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