The Power Of Noticing… And Not Noticing (An Alternative to Praise)

Rewards are an inherent feature of behaviorism, a school of thought which posits that we are influenced by our external environment alone. It does not take into account the inner life of kids. Their thoughts, their frustrations, their very identities are ignored. Behaviorism seeks to change children’s behavior through external forces, including various forms punishment and rewards. One of those forms (of punishment or rewards… depends on how it’s received) is praise. “Good job!” we might say to a child to push them toward a result we desire. I’m heavily conditioned to use praise by my culture here in the United States. It is a moment-by-moment battle to stop my mouth from dishing out quick and empty motivators. What’s so wrong with these phrases, though? Let’s look at a few.

I’m so proud of you!

Great work!

You can do it!

They all sound lovely and encouraging and the truth is they are. To a point. But, it’s the backside of these phrases that can harm our kids. I’m so proud of you! and Great work! communicate our excitement that our children have fulfilled our expectations of them. They are moral judgments that kids will continue to try to maintain to keep us happy. Well, that is, until they stop caring when the reward of praise becomes exhausting or demotivating. You can do it! looks harmless enough until you realize it represents a parent informing a child about their abilities. We can understand how dismissive it is to tell a crying child, “You’re ok,” rather than offering empathy. It erases the child’s inner feelings and minimizes their struggle. By the same token, while we may think You can do it! communicates our confidence in our child’s competence, in reality, it sets them up for an impossible outcome. If my child fails, does that mean I’ve lied to them? Does it mean I don’t respect them? What’s the end result?

The Power of Noticing

There is an alternative that works to foster intrinsic motivation: noticing. Noticing can be a simple thank you, It helps a lot when you carry groceries in with me. Thank you! Noticing can be paying attention to the simple, every day things, You’re working so hard on that drawing. I’d love to hear about it! Noticing can be empathetic support, Scoring a goal is really challenging. I am right here with you. Noticing is highlighting and acknowledging the values or the effort or the struggle without attributing a moral zero-sum game to them.

Now, when I’ve talked about praise as problematic before, I’ve gotten some pushback over our often involuntary responses to the happiness that flow from us when our children are succeeding at the things that are important to them. Do I think that smiling at a child or clapping in excitement or happily exclaiming Good job! is going to destroy our children’s intrinsic motivation? Absolutely not. 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. We run into trouble when the strategy we employ to motivate our children becomes a pattern of manipulation rather than genuine connection and the intent to notice.

I’m especially partial to the phrase, You did it!, to express my joy when my children accomplish goals they’ve set out from themselves. It’s my way of noticing their effort by stating a fact and leaving it at that.

The Power of Not Noticing

As we carefully and purposefully speak to our children’s intrinsic motivation, we have to know when enough is enough. Have you ever seen a child’s exuberance deflate when a parent comments on what they’re doing? I certainly have in my own children. When I overstep bounds and interject my thoughts onto my children, it can be an invasion into their bubble of privacy. Any time we interact with our children, we impose our own values. For better or worse, most of us adults value things like rightness, progress, and success. But, these values aren’t superior to wrongness, stopping, or failure. Think of all the wonderful things that happen in the space of wrongness, stopping, and failure. We learn by trial and error. We pause to rest and to reflect. We know when to move on because something isn’t working. These are also critical lessons children need to learn and they can’t do that when we compulsively push them away from the very spaces they need to reside in.

Healing Hearts Play Therapy posted a beautiful sentiment around children’s need for freedom of expression without adult over-involvement:

It’s very easy for us to jump in and teach. Although, often children need time to express their thoughts freely. It’s ok if they don’t know what to do and it’s ok for them to feel they need direction.

When we continually teach and correct children, they learn to always look for direction. The more children use their own thoughts, the more they build up their intrinsic motivation and self belief. Having time to be creative with no direction is such a healthy process and supports children’s emotional wellbeing.

For me, the simplest way to know when my comments are invited is to wait to be invited. When my children include me in their play and in their efforts in some way, those are the times I can be pretty sure it’s ok to share encouragement and love. I try to avoid interrupting my children to tell them what I think. Sometimes this method works and sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, I am quick to apologize and let them know I won’t interrupt again. See what happens there? I learn from my wrongness. Children have a way of enforcing their boundaries in a straightforward, genuine way when adults allow them to. So, let them, y’all.

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.

For a deeper dive, check out Isn’t Smiling a Reward?