Controlling our children with praise and rewards

It may be fairly easy to understand why some parents do not agree with punishment, in any form, because they believe it to be disrespectful to the child, damaging to a child’s self-worth, damaging to the parent-child relationship and ultimately, ineffective in the long run. Teachers will be familiar with the temporary compliance that punishment may bring but do the ‘troublemakers’ ever realise why their behaviour is wrong and start to make better choices? Or do they display anger and rebel further in the future? The child feels controlled and isn’t involved in their decision making, meaning they are less likely to make good ones in the future. In any act of defiance, any tantrum, any unacceptable social behaviour, there should be an opportunity for the child to learn. How can they do this when we work against them rather than with them? All they really learn is to do what they are told or suffer. These consequences only make the child interested in how their actions affect them and therefore do not learn to see other people’s point of view in order to become compassionate, moral decision makers. The research is clear as day; punishments don’t work. It seems obvious to me that we need to work with children, taking the time to understand them, and resist the urge to control these situations, if we want them to grow up to be ethical, confident, sociable adults with good thinking skills.

However, it might be harder to understand why anyone would think that offering their child praise, a form of reward, could be damaging in similar ways. After all, how can something that is intended as positive encouragement and often given with love, do anything other than boost self-confidence and motivation? I have been really interested in this topic since it was first brought to my attention during my Montessori studying and I have recently finished the book ‘Unconditional Parenting’ by Alfie Kohn, which puts a lot of emphasis on the negative impact of positive praise. I am sorry to say, particularly if you are someone who goes out of their way to avoid punishment but focuses instead on the ‘good’ behaviour, that verbal praise, along with tangible rewards, is actually just the other end of the same spectrum.

When we tell our children that they are ‘good’ for behaving in a certain way we are telling them that we approve of them for behaving in that way. Despite how we dress it up, we are making sure that we are still in control of their actions. Just like when we punish them for doing something we disapprove of, we are conditioning our children, in a similar way to how we would train a dog. We are giving them the message that we will only love them if they please us and do as they’re told. I know what you are thinking; of course I love my children regardless of how they behave! But it isn’t what you, the adult, knows. It is what the child hears. Being condemned when you do this and praised when you do that; you have to earn my approval, acknowledgement, attention…you have to earn my love.

Montessori disagreed with any form of reward or punishment and children were viewed as having the best intentions from birth; children are not born ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’. When we suggest that a newborn baby is ‘good’ – something that so many people said to me when Poppy was younger – we are saying that there is a possibility that they can be ‘bad’, which for a child who has no understanding of the world or social interactions and is only behaving on their most basic human instincts, is a ridiculous thing to suggest. Labelling a child as good or bad we are merely gauging how much of an inconvenience their complex behaviour is to us without understanding the reasons behind it. I find this baffling that we are not interested in getting to know our children better but instead want to tell them how to be to fit in with us. Being eager to learn about my daughter as an individual and unique person I agree with Alfie Kohn who advocates ‘working WITH’ strategies in favour of the ‘doing TO’ approach to raising children.

We should be cautious of manipulating children in any way to comply with what we want. Encouraging a child to be obedient, either because of a fear of punishment or a desire for praise, may backfire when they become old enough to be influenced by people other than yourself. Everyone knows of a teenager who had been good as gold all their life, until one day they got in with the wrong crowd. They might appear to have changed their behaviour drastically, but in fact they are likely to be complying, as they always have, to somebody else’s rules. They are basing their actions on someone else’s judgement and lacking the confidence to follow their own minds, because they have never learnt how.

But there are more reasons to avoid rewards and verbal praise and you may find yourself more able to relate to this information as you read and reflect on your own life. Humans are intrinsically motivated to learn. Babies and children have an overwhelming urge to explore the world and find out how things work. They do not need anybody to tell them that they are doing a good job at splashing in puddles or that they are a good boy for putting the puzzle piece in the correct hole, the discovery they have made is satisfying enough. If we offer them rewards they get the message that what they are doing is something that they wouldn’t want to do, otherwise we wouldn’t have to bribe them. Instantly, their interest in the task declines. Thereafter the effort they put in is a means to an end, the end being praise, because unfortunately, the more a child gets the more they will want. That means that despite their innate desire to learn independently, if they are constantly being told that they are doing well – a quick, easy and satisfying assurance- they will become reliant on this reward and act in order to gain more approval rather than being driven by their intrinsic motivation. This is a key aspect of the Montessori approach, where concentration on their work is fundamental to their development and praise of any sort is seen as an unnecessary distraction. Both Montessori and Alfie Kohn suggest, and it has in fact been proven, that work motivated extrinsically is of far lower quality because the person becomes more focused on achieving recognition than they do on the task in hand. I notice this in Poppy already and when she is really focused on something I daren’t say a word for fear of breaking that vital concentration that is visible evidence that her brain is developing as I watch her. A quick ‘well done’ is enough to draw her out of her own learning and suppress her ability to think for herself. A child who is being conditioned to behave according to their parents or teachers standards, simply notices how the adult perceives their work or play and then alters it to suit the adult. True child-led play is an incredibly valuable, natural part of growing up that we cannot afford to interfere with.

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We can apply this degeneration in quality of work to the workplace as well. Alfie Kohn cites very interesting research that shows how incentives in the workplace do more harm than good whilst intrinsic motivation improves the quality of work being produced. And what happens when the rewards are no longer there? In a workplace you might see employers disengaging because they don’t see the point if they aren’t being acknowledged for their hard work and at school grades are a fine example of where rewards fail to encourage long-term commitment. I myself worked very hard short-term to get top marks at school, and yet didn’t internalise any of the information, nor did I feel genuine interest in anything I was studying. I took the easiest route to what I had been conditioned to think was success, which meant cramming in information, memorising it as if it were lines for a play, regurgitating it all under exam conditions and having nothing but a piece of paper with a meaningless A on it to show for it afterwards. Similarly, if a child becomes confident of how to gain rewards, even verbal ones, they are likely to take the easiest, most tried and tested route to do so. They won’t take risks or think outside of the box, because they see no point when they only have one end goal in mind – reward. This results in them missing out on a lot of learning opportunities considering exploration and discovery are key to learning. For example, imagine a child takes a drawing of a rainbow to their teacher who instantly says “Good girl! Clever girl! You drew a rainbow!” The teacher ends up with a picture of the same rainbow for a week. In the meantime the child could have been exploring how to draw different objects or use different materials. But moreover, is this the sort of adult we want our children to grow up to be? Taking the easiest route to self-gratification?

So it seems that there are many reasons that praise and rewards are detrimental to a child’s development, and on top of that they have been proven to be as ineffective as punishments in what they supposedly set out to achieve. Of course, there are times when you feel that you naturally want to give your child encouragement and the good news is that you can offer something constructive that will not only help the child to reflect and feel proud of themselves but also ensure that their intrinsic motivation remains as strong as ever. It might seem difficult to get your head around, and impossible to change a habit passed down through generations, but instead of focusing on the details and what not to say, try to focus on working with your child and avoiding all elements of control. If this is in the back of your mind at all times it might be easier to banish the praise forever because it starts to feel so wrong.

There are plenty of ways to show children that you are interested in their actions or efforts without showing judgement. Asking them questions is one of the best ways to do this whilst allowing them to reflect on the situation and learn about themselves. For example, “How did you paint those animals? They are really detailed!” or “I noticed that little boy appreciated your help just then, how did that make you feel?” You are simply observing but inviting your child to think. It might not feel natural at first but soon it becomes a part of everyday conversation and brings you closer to your children. For the big achievements there are phrases that can be used to share your child’s happiness and boost their confidence. For example, a simple, “You did it!” allows the child to reflect on their achievement, keeping their own goals as the motivation for their efforts. It says, “You did what you were trying so hard to do for so long. You must be really proud right now” in one little phrase. When your child has behaved in a way that is convenient to you and you would usually shower them with “Well done!” and “Great job!” try commenting on the effect their choices have had. For example, they are ready to leave the house on time; “You are ready to leave, which means we will be on time to collect your brother. He will be so happy!” Again, the child is able to reflect and learn how their actions have consequences on others. There are many alternatives to praise and rewards, and I have included some links below to help you get started. But one thing to also consider, is do you need to say anything at all? What are your reasons for saying it, and will it benefit the child?

If this topic has made you re-evaluate your approach to parenting then I urge you to read Alfie Kohn’s ‘Unconditional Parenting’ which highlights many aspects of what it means to show your child unconditional love and why you should relinquish control. One thing is for sure, verbal praise is not something to be used to enhance a parent’s unconditional support and love for their child, because in reality it equates to completely the opposite.

Read more here:

Montessori rewards and punishment

Alfie Kohn – Punished by Rewards?

Alfie Kohn on praise

Alfie Kohn – Five reasons to stop saying “Good job”

Alternatives to praise:

What to say instead of praise

Alternatives to “Good Job”

 

 

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Home Education – A Personal Journey of Freedom

P1040440 Being surrounded by home educating families at a recent picnic, it struck me how happy the atmosphere was. The children just seemed alive, bursting with positive energy and a passion for life, and the parents too had this peaceful sense of bliss about them, like they had found the answer to eternal happiness. Here was proof that home ed is a successful, magical journey, that most people don’t get the chance to see or perhaps don’t even have a clue it exists. I felt compelled to shed a little more light on this wonderful, mysterious community, starting by discussing some reasons why people choose home education. Some of my friends, who are all normal, sane human beings by the way, just like you (no really they are just like you…even those of you reading this whilst your kids are finishing their homework for school tomorrow, those of you who could just never home educate because you are not ‘brave’ enough or don’t know the first thing about anything), …those friends kindly answered some short questions for me about their reasons for home educating and I loved their responses. All of them are so different and yet something so strong underpins them; freedom. I guess first of all I should tell you a little bit more about our reasons. It may seem bizarre that we have already decided to home educate Poppy when she isn’t even a year old. But to me, education begins at birth and should be a continuous, life long journey, with no concrete milestones that dictate when you are suddenly ready to learn the alphabet or how to count to ten. We didn’t dictate when she should crawl, or start babbling, nor did we test that she could do a certain number of tricks by her first birthday (the questionnaire we got from the GP is still sitting unanswered on the shelf, soon to be binned!) Making our decision to home educate early on makes everything just feel so much more relaxed and free to unfold naturally, as it has all along, letting Poppy take control of her learning right from the start. There will be no pressure on us to make a quick decision before she turns 5 when everyone will be talking about her starting school, because by then we will very much submersed in our home ed world and hopefully confident with our decision. An unintentional but major result of being so forward thinking is that we are able to make friends with other children who will be home educated from now, so that when she does reach that tender age, not all of her friends will be heading to the school gates leaving her wondering why she is different. We have been so lucky to have met some wonderful like-minded families, many of which have children close to Poppy’s age as well as older children. It is so encouraging to know that these little Einstein’s will be growing and learning together, hopefully becoming a little community, supporting each other and building long lasting friendships. I know that socialisation, or a lack of, is people’s first concern when it comes to home education, but the home ed community is thriving around here. Yes, she will end up ‘different’ from the kids that go to mainstream schools, but is that necessarily a bad thing? It doesn’t mean she will be unhappy, weird or less socialised, just that she has different experiences to them and therefore will be building a different view, her own individual view, of the world around her. I feel that the school social environment is artificial and hope that Poppy will gain better social awareness and acceptance of others by being around children and adults of all different ages and backgrounds on a daily basis, learning different things from each and every one of them simply by playing with them and talking with them. P1040462 So what about when she gets older? Surely she will have to go to secondary school and take exams? We are not qualified or intelligent enough to teach her all of that! Maybe not, but we don’t need a qualification to provide love and support and I am confident that Poppy will be intelligent enough to learn the rest all by herself. Having studied child development from birth I know that Poppy has a natural instinctive drive to learn, and in the right environment that desire should never disappear. Babies are desperate to learn about the world around them, everything is new and interesting, and then they learn to talk and socialise and another world is unlocked. They play and interact with others, take interest in how things work, ask questions, seek answers…all by themselves! Then what? Aged 5 (5!!!) we suddenly need to guide them in a certain direction to make sure they don’t accidentally miss something out? God forbid they don’t learn how to read and write by the time they are 7, or they leave secondary school not knowing the meaning of pi. The thing is I truly believe that the children themselves are more capable of knowing what they need to learn, than the adults who set this curriculum. I can’t remember an awful lot from school, other than which boy I was going out with at what time! What has really taught me lessons in life are my experiences. Real life experiences that teach me about people, the world I live in, and perhaps most importantly, myself. I was always ‘academic’ and ‘clever’ at school, but it was lost on me because I didn’t know who I was anymore. I checked all the boxes, I could be whatever I wanted, but having gone through this system that aims to give every child the same knowledge, I had no idea what I wanted anymore. I had dreams but I was confused about whether they were good enough, whether I was better at something else that I didn’t like very much. As it happens I didn’t follow my dreams and I haven’t really used anything that I learnt in the curriculum in my adult life either. Ok I can put a sentence together (most of the time) but all of my ‘A’ grades are pretty much forgotten. I am defined more by what I do, my group of friends, my interests and hobbies, my family and my personality than a letter on a piece of paper. So as you can see, we are planning a very autonomous approach to home education. No lessons, no structure as such, just as many experiences as possible, from everyday mundane chores which teach valuable life lessons to adventurous trips around the world. I am excited to see what I learn along the way as well and I know that the fresh, eager eyes with which Poppy views the world will make everything that much more enjoyable and motivating for us too. And as for the fact that I will be spending every waking hour with my daughter, for all 52 weeks of the year…I can’t wait! I could go on forever, but I promised my friends they would be blog famous. So here are a few more perspectives on home education, I hope you enjoy the diversity of these answers and hopefully seeing home education in a new way: Zoe has two children, Vigo aged 3 and Leilani aged 1. Although she worries that her son may feel he is missing out on something by not going to school she hopes that the freedom that surrounds home education will give her children more opportunities and make them happy, confident children in the long run. What are your main reasons for choosing to home educate? “I think it has to be giving them both more of a chance to be children, free to learn through play without constant testing. In the long term, I want to give them more opportunities to choose their own direction in life, however diverse it might be. My dreams were always quashed by my school. I want them to feel confident and happy that they can succeed in whatever path they choose to follow.” What is your one favourite thing about home ed? “Having quality time with my family, doing the things that we love.” 10636236_10154596016970643_2170334459246196159_n Do you have any fears with regards to home ed? “My main worry at the moment is whether they will feel that they’re missing out on something by not going to school.” What are you hoping your child will gain in the long run? “In the long run, my main goal is to raise happy, confident children with a wide and varied knowledge of the world around them, ready to take on any challenge that faces them.” Michelle has two children, James aged 4 and Imogen aged 1. James was going to preschool when Michelle started to have doubts about the mainstream education system. She decided to take a very child led approach and listen to what James needed, and couldn’t be happier with her choice. What are your main reasons for choosing to home educate? ”It started with not being happy about a 50 child intake for reception aged children at the local school and this coincided with James starting to say he didn’t want to go to pre school anymore. People then started to say to me, “You’ll have to take him when he starts school, he won’t have a choice”…the thought of me dragging him to school when he didn’t want to go just filled me with dread! We started looking into home education and the more we learn the more we know this is the right decision for our family.” P1040455 What is your one favourite thing about home ed? “The freedom!” Do you have any fears with regards to home ed?  “No fears at all. I trust that my children will learn what they need to as and when they need to. Going to school doesn’t guarantee that you will pass all your exams and get a good job!” What are you hoping your child will gain in the long run?  I’m hoping that my children will be independent and confident. That they will be able to think for themselves and whatever path they choose they will be happy!” Sam has a little girl called Zara who is 3. Sam is passionate about her daughter learning in a natural way, without having to conform to certain rules or fit into any boxes. By allowing her to be an individual and explore the world in her own way she hopes that Zara will always have a love for learning. What are your main reasons for choosing home education? “Keeping my child in a safe and loving environment, where someone is mentally and emotionally present 99% of the time. Someone is there understanding the hugely specific emotional needs of my child and able to help guide her through those times, the way I want her to learn. Structural learning is so insignificant for me at the moment. I brought this child into the world, I will raise her. Keeping her love for learning alive is hugely important to us. I want my child to explore the world with passion and energy. To continue the way she has been learning since she came into this world. There should be no structure forced upon her – she is her own and I want to keep her individuality as such.” What is your one favourite thing about home education? “That we are within our individual rights to specialise our own learning. We can educate ourselves and our families whichever and whatever way, structured or unstructured, whatever works best for us.” Do you have any fears with regards to home ed? “That I won’t be able to provide enough opportunities to explore everything in this amazing world. But maybe we don’t need that. Maybe we, as the ‘learner’, just need to explore our own little space and we are happy with that. I am an introvert. I myself struggle with getting out of my own physical comfort zone. I don’t want my fears to impede on the learning of my child’s. I am NOT worried about not being able to provide enough social encounters. Already, I have found that you can do sooo much of that!” What are you hoping your child will gain in the long run? “To be a worldly, well rounded individual, who can get through the toughest of times and let it run like water off a ducks back. Thrive in life and be happy and confident.” P1040433 Ali has 3 children, Winnie aged 1, Alice aged 2 and Anthony aged 8 who is currently in full time education. Although Ali has her reasons for this at the moment she hopes one day she will be able to home educate all of her children. Ali plans to follow a more structured approach than the others but hopes that her knowledge of child development will allow her children to thrive. What are your main reasons for choosing home education? “I chose home ed after learning about the neuroscience of child development and how the school system is a complete contradiction to that.” What is your one favourite thing about home education? I love that it can harness a child’s creativeness, rather than force them into conforming. Do you have any fears with regards to home ed? “I worry that as a family unit we will struggle within the home ed community, we plan to follow the curriculum and be quite structured in our approach and I don’t think this is a popular approach.” Sue has 3 children, Elysia, the baby of the group at just 6 months! Ben aged 4 and Sophie aged 14. Being the only one of us with a secondary school aged child, who was taken out of mainstream school, it is lovely to hear positive feedback from Sophie herself. Sue is confident that this was the right choice to make and it is lovely to see that confidence in everything they do as a family. What are your main reasons for choosing home education? “To facilitate and support my children’s learning, to enable them to study subjects that are of interest to them and to spend more time as a family.” What is your one favourite thing about home education? “Seeing how happy my children are and being there to see their excitement when they learn something new.” Do you have any fears with regards to home ed? “No fears, there is so much support within the Home Ed community, I can always find an answer to my queries. My eldest has already sat her first GCSE at just 14 and the life skills my children are learning will be there forever.” What are you hoping your child will gain in the long run? “Happiness, contentment, to find a career and future that is personal to them, not something that they are doing just because ‘the system’ has taken them there. For them to learn from others and have some incredible life experiences. From a personal point of view I have spent the past 18 months educating myself on Home Education and getting to know my children better than I ever would’ve if they were still at school. Our bond as a family has grown immensely and I can only see us moving in a positive way in the future.” And a final word from Soph…”I love being home educated because I’m studying subjects I enjoy in a relaxed environment opposed to sitting in a dreary classroom studying subjects I probably dislike.” Let me know what you think, and if anything has changed your idea of home educating, or if you are already home educating and have similar reasons to any of these Mum’s. I look forward to posting more about home education in the future as it is seemingly very unknown to those on the outside of it. So many people ask me about the ‘rules’ surrounding home ed, when really there aren’t any! Your child, your choice! Thank goodness for that! 10405536_10154596017315643_5052342720040510202_n