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.