Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Donkey's Carrot

Last week, Margaret finished the summer reading program. We put the stickers on the chart for reading to her and in the end, we got a free ticket to the Lawrence Hall of Science (and the dinosaur exhibit!), a free pizza at Round Table, and a free ice cream at Fentons. That's cool and all, but I really struggle to make peace with programs like this.

I remember participating in summer reading programs and getting a gummy worm for each book I read, and my stomach hurt so much every week. I remember in third grade, we got a sticker on a chart for every 20 pages we read. I was so proud (in the obnoxious, goody-goody sort of way) that Mr. Felty had to add 3 more charts to be able to include all my stickers. I remember being promised candy every Friday in early morning seminary for every scripture mastery memorized and each day of reading completed.

And I remember receiving my first report card in high school. It was the beginning of a new semester in January and I was in a new biology class. I was anxious to see the report card from the fall semester as the teacher passed them out. I opened it, glanced down to the bottom and saw my class rank: 2 of 385. And at that moment, I thought to myself, "Well, I'm done. I can give a mediocre effort from here on out and I'll still be in the top 10 percent of the class and get scholarships. I'm done." And I was.

By the time I was in high school, I was done with the reward system. And as an adult, as soon as an incentive is put on something, I immediately question if it's worthwhile to even bother.

A few weeks ago, McKay's siblings all started this healthy-living game where you get points for exercising so many minutes and eating so many veggies and everyone puts $20 in and after it's done, whoever has the most points gets the money. I quit after just a couple of weeks because I just can't do incentives. It wasn't motivating me to do anything, in fact I resented it and got sick to my stomach even thinking about it.

This is what an incentive (whether grades, money, or other rewards) says to me:

"I think so little of your ability to make goals and keep commitments that I feel like you need X to get you do this." Or really, "Here, I'll dangle this carrot in front of you and treat you like an ass." And as soon as I hear that message, I quit. I refuse to play that game.

Now, I'm not against goals. I ran a 5k this year because I made that a goal and I worked for it, but no one needed to bribe me into it, and had they, I would not have done it. I'm not against tests. I have to take the California driving exam in order to get an California license when mine expires this year, but I see it as a means to an end, not as something that ranks my worth or value.

But rewards as bribery irk me so so much. So much, in fact, that every year the library reading program starts, I question whether or not I want to sign Margaret up for it.

I want Margaret to read because she loves it. I want her to read because it's fun and useful and it will allow her to do the things she wants to do in life. I don't want her to read because for every 15 minutes, she'll get a sticker on a chart.

I tried to not connect the reading with the chart for her. When we read together, I would make a mental note "Hmm. Two stickers today," and then some hours later offer, "Hey, how about we pick out a couple of stickers!" But even that made my stomach fall.

I know I can look at it in a more uplifting light: the chart is a means to the end of a free museum day! That's actually pretty cool!

But it still felt like bribery. And I don't know if we'll do it again next year. It pains me.

Have you run into this in your own life? Your kids? How do you frame these situations? Do you worry that your children aren't internalizing goals? Or am I just jaded from my personal experience with bribery and rewards?


  1. I was a voracious reader once I got going. So much so, in fact, that a common refrain in third grade was, "Teacher, Laura's reading again!" because I'd read a book under my desk instead of paying attention to the lesson.

    Later I had a junior high English teacher reprimand me for reading too much because she didn't want to print another chart for me to track the ridiculous amount of reading I was doing whilst the rest of the class complained that 50 pages was "too much" to read in a week.

    I read not because it was rewarded, but because my older siblings and father set the example for me. Granted, there were "Book It" pizzas, but I was going to read anyway, so it just meant I'd get to eat pizza for having fun.

    I would like to think that most things worth doing are their own reward, but many would disagree.

  2. I think that I am somewhere in between. I do agree that we (as in our present society) do way to much bribery, especially in the form of food, however I don't think it is all bad in moderation. As for the family challenge I didn't do it either but it works really well for Sam, so I think it is partly a personality thing. He works really well with the camaraderie of everyone working towards the goal together and he is works well with an incentive. The times that I think bribery work well with a kid are when you are interested in getting them to try something new that they will probably end up liking but are afraid or won't give it a try so it is a way to get them started, but you can't continue it always or they begin to only do it for the reward. I agree with the person above though, that sometimes it is nice to be rewarded for something you are going to do anyway--I wanted to be the top of my class, I wanted to win scripture chases, etc. not for any kind of reward, I was just competitive with myself but it was nice that sometimes I got cool free stuff for doing it anyway! (sorry this comment is a bit jumbled, I kept getting interrupted but I think you get my point!)

  3. Now, remember I am coming at this from an educator standpoint not a parent. I too struggle with the issue of too many rewards with things that should be done without reward. Reading, behaving at an age appropriate level, etc should be done because you should. But, this comes from me being a person who did not consistently respond to this system. I have learned though, that many of my students do require an external reward. I guess what I mean is that, I see no harm in external rewards to teach something that should become intrinsic, as long as that external reward does not become the only reason for an expectation to be met.

  4. My cousin did her masters in child literacy, and is now working on her doctorate, and she said something once, that on the whole, a lot of the times we are pushing children into reading too early, and by the time they get 9-10, they are burned out on reading, mainly because we teach our children too young to read. That's a bit of a separate issue, but one that came to mind with this.

    I think it is hard to separate the reward from the whole interaction. It also rubs me the wrong way, because it seems like a mechanism of control. Like, I associate that kind of thing with doing something I really don't want to do. Like, that seems to be the message with that kind of thing - "You don't actually want to do this, and it is not its own intrinsic award, so here's a motivation to do it." See the family health challenge gets at two things though, there is a reward, but also a sense of doing things together, which is its own motivation in itself. Like, I wonder how your reaction would be different if the setup was just that you'd all do these things together, as a means of family togetherness, with that being its own reward.

    I remember when I was in school, and my grandpa talked about reading non-fiction for fun, and I didn't understand that concept, mainly because almost all of the non-fiction reading I did was forced, and it never struck me as that interesting, but I find now that I've been out of school for awhile, I enjoy a mix of fiction and nonfiction. Of course, all these things just make me take more consideration for things like unschooling, which I know you, Heather, are a proponent of.

    Like, I can see Katie's point, that as a teacher, you might not really have the time and resources to take individual attention to figure out the best way to encourage and help one student if they are lagging behind in something. But I also don't like that system. I don't like the concept of putting my children into a school where they can't get individual attention, and their expectations are for a group, as opposed to being allowed to grow and explore and flourish at their own pace. It just seems like another instance of in some cases just shoving things down our children's throats, instead of letting them come to it naturally, and letting them live and enjoy that process.

  5. In thinking about this some more, I remembered this post I read some time ago. On one hand, I wonder if praise/rewards is making children crave them more and become "praise junkies." But on the other hand, I also know that for some people receiving gifts or words of affirmation are important love languages. It's very much a chicken/egg issue.

    And the family fitness challenge was presented as a family motivator/togetherness thing, which is why I did it in the first place- mostly to support McKay, but in practice it wasn't really like that, so I got out.

  6. I completely agree with you about rewards. I have chosen not to use rewards or bribery of any kind with my children, and they really do do things for intrinsic reasons, even at 5 and 3 years old, even things like cleaning the house and helping each other and math flash cards and practicing writing and learning to read and using the toilet and eating their veges. It's not always on the time table *I* would choose, if I were making my preference the standard, but I believe that therein lies much of the problem with bribery and rewards. Kids WILL learn to do things for intrinsic reasons if supported in figuring out *their own* intrinsic reasons, which might be different from their parent's reasons. But I think that too often, the parents are trying to hold them to an arbitrary timeline of when they are supposed to have these skills mastered and try to rush them with bribery.

    Have you read any of Alfie Kohn's work? I think you would enjoy his writing on the subject.

    Also there is a book by a mormon author called Wilpower is Not Enough. I'm not mormon, but it was recommended to me by a mormon friend and I enjoyed it. It's about getting the motivation to do things or break habits by discovering what you *really want* and how those wants are given by God, instead of relying on willpower.

  7. Ok, I don't want to turn this into a debate on education (I have enough of that everyday as a public school teacher) but I wanted to address Jennie's comment about teachers doing something because there is not enough time or resources to individual attention, I know every one of my students. I learn most of their stories, needs, and learning styles pretty quickly. I have to use my time efficiently though so, I usually start with what works for the most students before individualizing for students out of necessity. My special education students on the other hand, I have access to their needs in advance and can differentiate right away. Right now, there is a push for "differentiated instruction" and giving every student their own tailor made schooling. Plus, there are may times that I may be the only person in a student's day who gives them praise. I cannot be a replacement parent. I can be a positive influence in my student's lives.

  8. As an educator, I passionately dislike how often we resort to bribes...and I'm talking older kids here, not wee ones. Turn in your paper on time? Candy! Didn't break any rules this week? Listen to your iPod in class! Didn't get detentions this semester? Sticker on your report card!
    I feel that all of those examples are excessive because kids should already be doing these things. That being said, I do like rewards for going above and beyond, for doing better than expected. I don't like rewards for behaviors (doing homework, turning in homework, not hitting or name-calling) that they should already be doing.
    I keep a jar of treats (peppermints, fancy pencils, etc) in my desk for those moments, when a student gives a particularly good answer or when someone is being particularly nice, but those are treats, not payments. I hope.
    Thank you so much for writing this. I worry about our country's future, that we all expect a reward for doing what we're already supposed to be doing.

  9. Our kids have always wanted to participate in the library reading programs. They read constantly so it doesn't change their behavior. They just think it is cool that they can get coupons for fast food or activities for doing something they love and would be doing anyway. They love to get free things. The hardest part for us is remembering to keep track of how many minutes they read because they are always reading.



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