Are Rewards a Tool of Abuse?

As peaceful parents, we recognize that rewards and punishment are tools of manipulation and they have no place alongside things like emotion coaching and relationship building. But, should we go so far as to call rewards a tool of abuse? That’s a heavy, heavy word and one I was reticent to use in describing punishments, like spanking, for a very long time. However, within the past year, I have come to realize just how destructive spanking really is. Now, I’m turning my attention to rewards to investigate their effects on children.

Rewards are an implement of a field of psychology called behaviorism. Put plainly, behaviorism is a psychological approach that assumes all behaviors are the result of conditioning and that behavior is always purposeful. It leaves no room for cognitive sources of behavior. So, where behavior is deemed a problem, the solution is not to resolve what is happening with the person internally, but to externally mold the person’s behavior into something the therapist considers more appropriate.

While behaviorism as a branch of psychology traces its roots back to 1913, the use of external manipulation is far, far older. It’s mentioned throughout the Bible, we see it in the form of punishment as marks cut deep on skeletal remains, and we all know it for the anxiety and fear it produces. Behaviorism has some practical applications, such as animal training and smoking cessation when used by choice. Consent is key, as behaviorism has such a substantial potential to be harmful. To understand how very undermining it can be, take this story as an example. I saw it in an autism-related facebook group and it is a fantastic illustration of what I mean.

My degree is on Cognitive Science, which included quite a bit on behaviorism. I was never aiming to be a therapist, and had no idea I was autistic when I was in college.One of the interesting things about behaviorism is that it works even on subjects who have no idea they’re being trained. You can train a grown adult into quite elaborate behaviors without them being aware they’re being trained, or sometimes that they’re even doing the behaviors. Case in point, my brother’s psychology class decided to try training their professor. They picked three behaviors they wanted: writing class notes more towards the middle of the board, using the word “I” more, and tucking his hand into his upper inside pocket a la Napoleon. They then chose three reinforcers: scribbling notes, looking up at the professor, and leaning forward interestedly.The professor was an excellent subject, and by the end of the semester was using “I” in virtually every sentence, had his hand tucked in the target pocket any time he wasn’t using it, and writing all his class notes in a 2 foot square box in the middle of the room-spanning chalkboard, all without realizing he was doing it. In fact when they fessed up at the end of the semester, he didn’t believe them until they turned him around and showed him 3 hours of notes crammed into a tiny invisible square for no good reason.How do you think the professor reacted to the revelation? If you guess “not well”, you’re right. If you ponder why that might be, even though he liked that class particularly (such attentive, responsive students!), and hadn’t minded the training process at all, you may have some insight on why so many autistic people dislike ABA, even in kinder, gentler forms.

Researcher Alfie Kohn suggests that rewards and punishments are two sides of the same coin. He wrote a book about his perspective called Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. He explains that, “There are at least 70 studies showing that extrinsic motivators—including A’s, sometimes praise, and other rewards—are not merely ineffective over the long haul but counterproductive with respect to the things that concern us most: desire to learn, commitment to good values, and so on. Another group of studies shows that when people are offered a reward for doing a task that involves some degree of problem solving or creativity—or for doing it well—they will tend to do lower quality work than those offered no reward.”

So, rewards tend to be demotivators over time. They interfere with natural human curiosity and self-realization. They aren’t that different from using a treat to teach a dog to sit. After all, humans and dogs are both animals. Many of our innate, unconscious motivations are the same, such as seeking food and drink, and avoiding danger. Rewards offer temporary motivation, but it comes at a cost. However, there is a way to keep rewards fresh… and it’s enticing: intermittent reinforcement.

In practice, intermittent reinforcement involves rewarding a subject sporadically rather than continuously for a behavior deemed to be desired. For children, it might be a gold star for being kind to a classmate where the child has to be kind over and over before being noticed. The anticipation of the reward keeps the desired behavior front and center. But, intermittent reinforcement has a dark side. It is a preferred form of trauma bonding used by abusers in violent relationships.

Shahida Arabi, author of Power: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse, writes,

Flowers after days of the silent treatment. Crocodile tears after weeks of brutal insults. An unexpected extravagant gift after a rage attack. A sudden moment of tenderness after hours of critical remarks. What do these all have in common? In the context of an abusive relationship, they are all demonstrations of intermittent reinforcement – a dangerous manipulation tactic used to keep you bonded to your abuser.

Psychologist B.F. Skinner (1956) discovered that while behavior is often influenced by rewards or punishment, there is a specific way rewards are doled out that can cause that behavior to persist over long periods of time, causing that behavior to become less vulnerable to extinction. Consistent rewards for a certain behavior actually produce less of that behavior over time than an inconsistent schedule of rewards. He discovered that rats pressed a lever for food more steadily when they did not know when the next food pellet was coming than when they always received the pellet after pressing (known as continuous reinforcement).

In laymen’s terms, when we know to expect the reward after taking a certain action, we tend to work less for it. Yet when the timing of the reward or the certainty that we’ll get it at all is unpredictable, we tend to repeat that behavior with even more enthusiasm, in hope for the end result. We relish the joy of a “hard-earned” reward that much more.

Intermittent reinforcement can trigger behavior that looks a lot of compulsion and obsession in humans, especially in the context of a toxic relationship. So, where does this leave us on the question of rewards being abusive or not?

Here is my perspective. The way we wield rewards is crucial. When we use rewards to manipulate our children into doing what we want, we have fallen into dangerous territory. The more we use rewards to coerce children, the more it begins to look like abuse. However, humans do crave social acceptance and recognition is an important part of that. Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Laura Markham, has some advice for how to incorporate recognition without falling back on rewards. She says,

The good news is that there are better ways to give our children encouragement. In fact, when children feel seen, accepted and appreciated for who they are, that becomes a super power, an internal source of affirmation that outweighs any external evaluation and gives them an internal compass to express their values, from compassion to hard work.

So when you find yourself starting to say “Good Job!” or “Good Sharing!” try these phrases instead.

1. Empathize with his excitement (instead of evaluating and telling him what you think about his accomplishment.)

“Yes! You’re pedaling all by yourself!”

2. Let her know you’re really seeing her (and let her evaluate whether what’s she’s doing is working.)

“I see that you’re doing the sides of the puzzle first.”

3. Empower him to choose how to behave in the future by pointing out the results of his behavior (so he develops his own moral compass.)

“Look how happy your friend is to have a turn with your toy.”

4. Encourage effort (because that’s what creates results.)

“You’re working so hard on that…. I think just a little more practice and you’ll nail it!”

5. Be specific in your description (so your child feels his accomplishment is seen, rather than just a global “good job.”)

“You counted from zero to twenty! Last week, you couldn’t count that far. I see that you’ve been working on learning those numbers!” 

6. Ask questions to help your child reflect (so she begins to trust herself to be the arbiter of her own performance.)

“Do you like the way it came out? Why or why not?”

7. Express your own feelings, including gratitude.

“I love it when we work as a team like this! It makes the work so much faster! Thanks so much for helping me.”

Notice the difference?  You’re not judging your child. You’re loving him. As Deepak Chopra says,  “Love is attention without judgment. In its natural state, attention only appreciates.”  That’s the kind of attention every child needs.

These words ring true for my own family. Peaceful Dad and I do not use rewards or punishments with our crew. And, this decision was recently affirmed when our new speech therapist remarked on our son’s ability to engage with her without the need for rewards. I took the opportunity to gush about peaceful parenting, intrinsic motivation, and emotion coaching. The reality is this: No rewards, no punishments, respectful, and connected discipline is not only possible, it’s also evidence-based and fruitful for all children. It’s achievable, but it does take a big shift in thinking on the part of us parents.

Rights Versus Freedoms

Last week, when I wrote about children’s rights, I was expecting some pushback. Members of a childist culture will obviously struggle to cut through their conditioning… and that includes me. However, I was not prepared for one subset of responses that popped up in several places where my post was shared: accusations that advocating for children rights equates to condoning pedophilia. I was floored. Why would sexual abuse be the first thing that pops into someone’s mind when they consider the rights of children? And, why would anyone put the responsibility on the child and not the adult predator? Clearly, I do not have the answers to these questions, particularly because nothing about what I wrote indicated that children should be left entirely without the guidance and protection of trusted adults.

I do, however, have a response to this incredibly disturbing line of reasoning. Child sexual abuse is happening already in the U.S. where children do not have anywhere near the number of rights that adults have. And, you’ll never guess one of the crucial things we should be teaching our kids to help protect them from predators: children can say no to adults. Many children have never had that opportunity without being punished, so they don’t realize they can use that word when speaking with an adult. Check out this post from the Child Mind Institute for more information on ways we can empower our children to escape from and report attempts at sexual abuse.

Why Childism Matters

Early in my Peaceful Parenting journey, I was debating spanking in a Facebook group. I said, “I don’t hit people” to which a commenter responded, “We’re talking about children, not people.”

Childism isn’t as simple as whether or not you like children. Some people don’t like kids and that’s ok. You don’t have to like kids to believe they should be assured human dignity. [EDIT: I was wrong. It is NOT ok to dislike kids anymore than it is ok to dislike any other entire group of people. That was a bit of residual childism on my part, and I’m accountable for it.] Unfortunately, in the U.S. alone, more than 3 million cases of child abuse are investigated each year and an average of 5 children are murdered every day of the year by caregivers. A sobering report from the U.S. Department of Justice states that, in the previous year, “60 percent [of children in the U.S.] were exposed to violence, crime, or abuse in their homes, schools, and communities. Almost 40 percent of American children were direct victims of 2 or more violent acts, and 1 in 10 were victims of violence 5 or more times. Children are more likely to be exposed to violence and crime than adults. Almost 1 in 10 American children saw one family member assault another family member, and more than 25 percent had been exposed to family violence during their life.” To be clear, THIS IS A HUMAN RIGHTS CRISIS.

Childism is the basis for the abuses children suffer, because childism says that children are not people. Our entire culture is complicit in the abuse of children.

One doesn't have to operate with great malice to do great harm. The absence of empathy and understanding are sufficient."

Charles M. Blow

Defining Rights and Freedoms

In my efforts to speak clearly and accessibly about childism, I neglected to anticipate a common concern many readers would have about the Anti-Childism Scale from last week’s blog post.

I received questions about how to balance equal rights for children with parental responsibility. So, I’ll begin with a very basic distinction between rights and freedoms.

  • A right is a privilege enjoyed by all members of a society.
  • A freedom is an absence of constraints.

The study of rights is so massive and so arguable that it’s difficult to pin down exactly what categories of rights exist. I will attempt to be brief and clear with the understanding that others may not agree with how I’ve broken these down.

Natural Rights: These are the rights we’re born with that need no special dispensation, such as the rights to life, liberty, and so on.

Moral Rights: These are the rights that hold societies together. They may or may not be enforceable by law. Moral rights may include things like the right to be treated fairly, whatever that may mean in the given culture.

Legal Rights: These are rights that are enforceable by law. They are typically moral rights that become codified. Legal rights include things like the right to move through life without being discriminated against, the right to own property, and the right to vote.

(Duties: Where a right is an entitlement, a duty is an obligation. I include this here as an aside to note that children’s rights advocates do not seek equality in duties, such as requiring young children to be subject to military conscription.)

There is tremendous interplay among these categories and rights vary from country to country. It is also important to note that rights can be limited by a society, as in the case of the famous prohibition against using the U.S. Constitutional right to free speech to justify the act of yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. And, of course, there is the matter of incarceration where many rights are suspended (but many remain).

Children’s Rights

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is a legally-binding collection of 54 articles detailing children’s rights. It was ratified over 30 years ago, so it is not new by any means. To date, it has been signed by 196 countries, including the U.S. (1995). Regrettably, the U.S. regularly violates the agreement, as a country, and does not hold parents to its tenets. For instance, the UNCRC declares that children must be free from violence, yet the U.S. government has not taken a stance against spanking. At the very least, children’s rights advocates would see every child in the U.S. guaranteed the rights dictated by the UNCRC, but there’s so much more we could do.

For example, we could embrace the youth suffrage movement and eliminate the voting age, especially given the fact that “the quality of these citizens’ choices is similar to that of older voters, so they do cast votes in ways that enable their interests to be represented equally well” (Source). And, perhaps surprising, a study out of Scotland that controlled for socio-demographic diversity found that “the newly enfranchised young people in Scotland indeed show substantially higher levels of engagement with representative democracy (through voting) as well as other forms of political participation (such as signing petitions and taking part in demonstrations); and they engage with a greater range of information sources about politics and reflect greater levels of political efficacy.” Kids are brilliant and observant if we give them half a chance to be.

There are certain rights that are extremely sensitive and uncomfortable to debate, like marriage age. In some states in the U.S., there is no statutory minimum age at all with parental consent. In our current, childist culture, allowing parents to marry off their children can be disastrous. However, in a hypothetical anti-childist culture where children are treated with respect, taught appropriate boundaries, and included in all facets of society from childhood, the option to marry at a younger age to a peer would make a lot more sense than it does now. And, when I say “younger age,” I mean teenage. I do not believe young children should have the freedom to marry whenever they please as the risk of harm is far too high. So, their right to marry would need to be limited in this hypothetical culture.

Parental Responsibility

Here’s the really touchy part. Where is the line between a right and a freedom drawn? Freedom is the absence of constraints. Even adults do not enjoy unlimited freedom and children much less so. While a child may not be free to get a tattoo, they have the absolute right to consent to being circumcised or having their ears pierced. And, a tween might be permitted to go on a group date with peers, but should not be permitted to date an adult.

I think that, perhaps, the simplest way to respect a child’s rights while fulfilling our duty as parents to protect and guide our kids is to put ourselves in their shoes. Would we allow someone to rip our clothes off and force us into a bathtub? No? Then, we shouldn’t do that to a child. Would we allow someone to hit us when we make mistakes? No? Then, we shouldn’t do that to a child. Would we allow someone to force us to eat food we don’t want to eat? No? Then, we shouldn’t do that to a child.

Yes, it’s a worldview shift which is what makes all of this so difficult. Most of what I do here in this space is to provide parents with alternatives to doing these things we do to kids but wouldn’t do to an adult. There are other, gentler options for children, including children who are resistant (which I’ve written about). And, until we get to the point where our relationship with our kids leads to mutual cooperation, there will very likely be times when we apply force. It’s far from ideal and it is certainly not respectful of children’s rights, but as a culture, we’re just not there yet. Individually, we may have more success or less success.

What Does Anti-Childist Parenting Look Like?

The reality is that we all come to parenting with a perspective that has been informed by our upbringing, our culture, our stressors, and our wounds. People have legitimate reasons for doing the things they do, including all the things I encourage parents not to do. What I try (and probably often fail) to do in my writing is to acknowledge the thought process and validate the parents’ needs while simultaneously advocating for children. I’m looking to help families heal whatever needs attention between parents and their kids so that, together, they can move forward in an enduringly positive bearing.

I can see a situation and grasp why a parent might react in an aggressive way toward a child. I want to offer the space to deconstruct what is happening in that parent’s life that led to the moment in time where they were at odds with their child. Is the parent struggling financially? Is the parent a member of a people group that experiences constant discrimination? Does the parent have a combative relationship with the children’s other parent(s)? Is the parent completely overwhelmed with no help? Are there other factors at play that make responding peacefully seem completely impossible? Does the parent honestly have no idea what else to do? Yes, often, and I’m empathetic to the struggle. It’s tough out here.

I’d like to share a little of my own experience here to illustrate why I am so deeply committed to the Peaceful Parenting philosophy. It’s a daily effort to choose a de-escalated response even when I’m barely holding it together. That part is so hard for me but the payoff is extraordinary. These are some common issues that frustrate many parents but aren’t a battle in my house (and I’ll explain why!):

  • Car Seat Safety
  • Toothbrushing
  • Bathing
  • Trying new foods
  • Choosing clothes/getting dressed
  • Diapering

They are not issues in my household, because we’ve never made them an issue. My kids have always had the right of refusal 99% of the time. It’s just not a big deal, so they don’t make it one. They do these things willingly and without much effort on my part. That said, we do have other struggles and, as a Peaceful Parent, limits are a necessary aspect of my approach. So, please, understand that I am not saying children should, or even could, be given unlimited free rein.

Because I believe deeply in equal rights for kids, I work toward becoming a Subverter in every interaction I have with children. Here are some of the ways I acknowledge my children’s individual personhood and preferences:

  • I’m patient with my kids and I give them lots of time both to respond to me and to switch gears when we need to do something else.
  • I don’t tell my children how they feel (“Oh, you’re ok”).
  • I don’t mandate manners.
  • I assume competence and I don’t jump in to save the day while they’re problem-solving.
  • I invite my children to handle delicate things, work on a hot stove, and use adult tools (all with supervision of course) because involving kids helps them build skills and understand safety.
  • I include my kids in my daily life and expect them to share family responsibilities.
  • I don’t require my children to clean alone. This may seem an odd point, but I struggled so much as a child when my parents told me to clean my room because I didn’t have the executive functioning skills to figure it out. So, with my kids, I’m present to help them when they need guidance well before they become frustrated.
  • I acknowledge that the things they believe are important are as critical as the things that are important to me. If my child accidentally breaks a toy, I know their strong feelings about it are equivalent to how I’d feel wrecking my car. It’s a big deal.
  • I don’t manipulate (“I’ll cry if you don’t give me a hug!”), threaten (“If you don’t stop right now, it’s time out for you!”), or coerce (“Be a good girl and pick up your toys.”)
  • I encourage my children to say no to me and to negotiate.
  • I don’t want obedient children. I want wise and cooperative children who are self-motivated.
  • I don’t bribe or use rewards of any kind.
  • I respect my kids’ property, space, and privacy.
  • I don’t prank or laugh at my children unless they are clearly in on it.
  • I don’t force my children to eat anything. No “You have to try one bite.” No “You won’t get dessert if you don’t eat!”
  • I expect my children to have their own interests, have emotions, need time to rest without my interference, and resist my agenda/schedule for their lives.
  • I don’t relish time away from them because they annoy me. I don’t blame my children for my emotions. I do appreciate self-care and time to myself because it’s good for my health.
  • I respond to undesirable behavior with the Three Rs to help my children find their peace instead of punishing them or otherwise further escalating their heightened emotions.
  • I don’t make excuses for my behavior if I treat my kids poorly (“You made me angry, so I yelled.”). Instead, I readily apologize and make amends.

Now, read back through that list but imagine I’m talking about my husband. Wouldn’t it be pretty much a given that I shouldn’t treat another adult any other way? Of course! Once I understood that, seeing my kids as equals in my humanity became easy. Kids are people, y’all.

Last week, many readers saw the line under the “Subverter” description on the Anti-Childism Scale that says, “children deserve equal rights as adults,” and missed, or didn’t understand, the part that says, “children have varying capacities to manage freedoms.” I hope everything I’ve explained here helps to clear up any misconceptions about the Anti-Childism Scale and my position on children’s rights and freedoms.