Isn’t Smiling a Reward?

Several weeks ago, I wrote a piece exploring the idea that rewards might be a tool of abuse and, therefore, something parents would be wise to avoid. In the aftermath, I was asked “Isn’t Smiling a Reward?” in the context of pushback from a reader who suggested that there is no way to avoid rewards in parenting. I will grant that the issue is complicated. Of course it is. We’re dealing with human brains! So, I dug a little deeper to better understand if and how rewards might be utilized within the context of peaceful parenting.

The first thing I know innately is that we are social beings. We seek to engage with others of our species as a primitive drive. We use facial expressions and body language to communicate whether other humans are in our circle or not. So, it stands to reason that we would take pleasure from expressions that indicate our inclusion into our preferred social group. With that idea in mind, I took to the science.

Here’s what I learned. Our brains have a reward center that uses the languages of dopamine and serotonin, two crucial neurotransmitters, to translate our experiences into something our minds can grasp physically. Brainfacts.org explains, “Dopamine-producing neurons in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) communicate with neurons in the nucleus accumbens in order to evaluate rewards and motivate us to obtain them.” In simple terms, the nucleus accumbens is a structure in the basal forebrain that scientists believe translates external stimuli into understandable gains, which allows us instinctively to recognize which behaviors are more likely to attain rewards and which ones are not. Check out this quick explanation:

We do not have to think to make the reward center of our brain operate. It is a very basic and very old system that operates behind the scenes. We may not even realize that our experiences are subtly altering our behavior. (And, this is why behaviorism is so effective, albeit harmful, for humans.)

In this sense, yes, a parent smiling at a child does activate the reward center in the brain; therefore, yes, smiling is a reward in the same way eating is a reward and sleeping is a reward and street drugs are a reward and so on. The term “reward” in this context means a reinforcer that encourages a person to return to the same behavior over and over again. However, when we talk about a “reward” in the context of peaceful parenting, what we mean is reinforcer that artificially manipulates a child into behaving in a way we prefer. For instance, providing candy for using the potty or saying “good job” to a child who has cleaned his room. These rewards offer temporary elation and encourage our kids to both crave our attention and unthinkingly submit to our authority.

Peaceful parents do not offer rewards in an effort to mold behavior. Instead of extrinsic (or external) motivation, we prioritize intrinsic (or internal) motivation. We know that extrinsic rewards are demotivating and that children will require more and more payoff to accomplish the same tasks the farther along we go. We don’t bribe our children with candy. If we give them candy, it is not a perk for connecting with interoceptive signals. It is an opportunity to sit around the table as a family and practice eating intuitively. We don’t pay our kids to do chores. If we provide an allowance, it is not an exchange for a job well done. It is an opportunity to learn financial responsibility.

And, we know this is the healthiest way to interact with our children, because science confirms it. A 2009 study found that people with low self esteem who engaged in positive self-statements such as “I am a lovable person” ended up immediately descending into self-deprecation when the self-praise conflicted with their concept of self. Empty praise backfires.

Alternatively, a 2016 study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience looked at the effects of self-affirmation, which involves dwelling on values rather than pointing out personal qualities. Participants were asked to “Please think about an experience involving [VALUE].” That exercise was then followed by visualization and thinking about the experience they’d had. The result was an increase in positive self-worth, which was even stronger when participants considered future events rather than past ones.

Turns out that self-affirmation improves function in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) and posterior cingulate (PCC), two areas the deal with self-referential processing (i.e. the parts of the brain that allow us to engage in mindfulness). These increases made the participants more resilient against any negative information that came later. This is why it is always more effective for children when we talk about values and efforts versus toward a future vision than when we talk about personal qualities and snapshot accomplishments. Both affirmations and praise activate our brain’s reward center, but only one insulates us against negative self-worth.

When we smile at our children out of sheer joy at their existence, it is rewarding to their brains, but it is not an effort to coercively manage their behavior. So, please, smile at your kids, hug them, love on them, and affirm them. In doing so, you will build up their self-esteem in a way that can make it unshakeable.

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