How Praise and Rewards Can Be as Damaging as Punishment

March 31, 2017 at 7:58 pm

Parents of our generation are coming to understand that punishment is psychologically damaging and ineffective at improving children’s behavior. But many of us who’ve condemned spanking and solitary confinement (time-outs/grounding) are still unaware of the damage created by a more insidious form of control – rewards and praise.

While a “good job” here and an “atta boy” there seem harmless enough, psychologist Robin Grille says praising or “rewarding children’s compliance is the flip-side of punishing their disobedience.”

In other words, they are two sides of the same coin.

“Praise is the sweet side of authoritarian parenting,” Grille writes for The Natural Child Project.

While it may seem more loving to entice children with carrots than to beat them with sticks, Grille argues both punishment and rewards accomplish the same result – reducing the relationship between parent and child to one of the controller and the controlled.

Same goes for teachers who take away recess for talking too much during class or give gold stars for sitting still and listening silently. Neither the punishment nor the reward is delivered out of unconditional love or support for the child to develop into whomever he or she wants to become. Both are attempts to manipulate, control and mold the child into what his parents, teachers, government and future employers want him to become.

Psychologist David Premack writes that rewards and praise,¬† along with punishment, are “a principal means of social control:”

The difference between reward and punishment lies in timing, in when an individual is required to ‘pay’ for the opportunity to perform [the desired] response. For reward, the individual pays before; in punishment, the individual pays after.

… The combination of finite resources and differences in human abilities guarantees the inequality of the distribution of the world’s goods. Some have an excess while others manage with the merest necessities. Reward and punishment are based on this disparity…

…Reward and punishment eliminate individual freedom, placing some members of society under the control of others. An individual who possesses everything is not subject to either reward or punishment … He is free, invulnerable to contingencies, not subject to control by others.

Only those who lack goods can be rewarded or punished. Only they can be [persuaded] to increase the [desired] responses to gain goods they lack, or forced to make [perform] for goods that do not belong to them…

Grille says intelligent, less gullible, children “feel something icky in praise.”

“It makes them feel condescended to. Praise is a reminder that the praiser has power over them. It diminishes the child’s sense of autonomy, and, like a little pat on the head, it keeps them small.”

The praise-giver, he says is like an “assessor, judging what merits praise and what doesn’t.”

Even though phrases like “good girl” or “nice work” are positive judgements, they are still judgments, and the feeling of being judged or evaluated can be scary and alienating for a child, Grille said.

“Children, like adults, naturally recoil from being controlled,” he said.

Rewards can feel like start to feel like punishment, Grille says, because the child is denied the reward, praise or approval – which suddenly becomes a need – until he “comes up with the goods … the child who is used to being praised begins to feel inadequate if the praise doesn’t come. Nothing feels more defeating to a child than to miss out on a reward that he or she had been conditioned to expect.”

Grille says sometimes the reason parents compulsively use praise is because their own childhood wounds have left them desperate for approval and admiration, and praising their children makes them feel good about themselves. Children can sense when parents are praising them to boost their own self-esteem, and feel robbed by it, he says.

“Some children refuse to produce what they are naturally good at, because they are repulsed by their parents’ gloating.”

A better way

Rather than our praise, approval or reward (aka our evaluations) what our children really want and need from us is appreciation, acceptance, encouragement, admiration and unconditional love. They want us to delight in them.

If you’re feeling confused, as I was, about the difference between praise and appreciation, here are a few tips from Grille:

1. Focus on the child’s pleasure – Instead of “good job,” try saying “that looked fun.”
2. Help the child self-evaluate – “Do you like how your painting turned out?”
3. Ask about the child’s inner experience – “How did you feel about the story you wrote?”
4. Use I statements, instead of labeling the child – “I love those colors” or “I love when you sing” instead of “You’re such a good artist” or “You’re so good at singing.”
5. Comment on the behavior, not the person – “That was passionate acting” instead of “you’re a great actress.”

Ultimately, it’s not so much the words or phrases that we use that matter, but our intention behind them. Is our intention to control, manipulate or shape the child into what we want them to be? Or to help encourage them to blossom into who they already are?