Rewards Can Be Overdone

Parents, therapists and educators are justly concerned about a tendency to be overly critical and to use punishments too often and too harshly. But can rewards also be over-done?

Many therapists advise overly critical parents to “catch their children doing something good, and praise them.” I think that’s good advice. However over-doing rewards can be troublesome.

Have you ever thought about the effect when you offer an external reward to children for doing something they’re “supposed” to do or something they “like” doing? Some experts claim that the external reward system does the opposite of what was intended to do. It discourages achievement instead of motivating it.

Twelve year old Terri told me about the time she did an extra special job of cleaning the kitchen rather than the usual half way job of just doing the dishes. When she finished, she stood back and admired a job well done and she felt good.

Terri liked it that her mother noticed how nice the kitchen looked. It would have been fine if she’s stopped there.  Mom however acted as though Terri had scrubbed every quarter inch of a hopelessly germ, grease and mold-contaminated kitchen with a small soft bristled toothbrush. Mom told Aunt Mary, the next door neighbor, Terri’s friends and anyone else that would listen. Terri was not pleased, she was embarrassed.

From her point of view the reward of a clean kitchen was sufficient. Terri told me that from now on she’d just do the dishes. She wants to avoid all the gushing.

Let’s consider Katy’s dilemma. She used to like reading. She learned to read when she was five years old. It was a great adventure. She figured out that all those squiggly little markings on a piece of paper contained an interesting story and she was thrilled with her ability to decipher the code. Reading was a fun thing to do. Katy also liked to ride her bike, play with friends, watch television, and go shopping.

At school she got ‘A’s for reading well. She didn’t get ‘A’s for riding her bike, playing with friends, watching television or going shopping. At first the ‘A’s were fine because she was proud of her accomplishment and her parents gave her a lot of attention for getting them.

Little by little however, Katy came to realize that those ‘A’s were a pain. It wasn’t okay for her to get a ‘B’ or a ‘C’. She had to get the ‘A’. That’s when Katy started concentrating on getting the grade, and reading which used to be fun, became a chore. Soon she lost her enthusiasm for reading and did only as much as she had to. Her grades began to slip.

Katy’s parents were concerned about Katy’s lack of interest in reading. When she was ten they gave her a dollar for every book she read. By this time she liked dollars, but she hated reading. Choosing easy unchallenging books was Katy’s solution to this problem.

At age thirteen, Katy is a little more realistic about the world of competition. She is as anxious about her grades as her parents are. She knows that competition for a place in a good college is fierce. Although she hasn’t a clue about what she wants to study in college she knows her life will be a mess if she doesn’t get into a good one. The ‘A’ doesn’t feel like a reward to her. The hard work getting it feels like some sort of punishment though. She frets and stews to the point of losing sleep the night before a test.

Certainly it makes sense to praise a job well done and to show appreciation for favors. That’s just good manners. Like anything else that’s good, it can be overdone.

—M. LaCourt


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