If you’re thinking about using positive reinforcement techniques on your child as a way to help them become more obedient, there is some VERY interesting research that’s surfaced lately that might make you reconsider positive reinforcement.
Here’s the study I’m referring to…
In a very fascinating study, researchers took a group of children, split them into two groups and gave them all a tasty drink none of them had ever had before.
One group of children was simply allowed to drink the drink. But the other group was given a small reward after drinking the drink.
Then one week later both groups of kids were put back into a room where that same drink was available.
And here’s the amazing thing they noticed about positive reinforcement!
The group of children who had been previously rewarded for drinking the tasty drink was MUCH less likely to drink the drink on their own free will, then the other group of children, meaning…
The very act of rewarding a child for doing something actually DECREASED their motivation to do it in the future… NOT increase it like so many behavior specialists have long believed is the case.
And in case you were wondering, this is not the only study that’s revealed this phenomenon, hundreds of studies have shown the similar side effect, and seem to suggest that using positive reinforcement to get our children to do things… will actually make them less likely to do it in the future.
Here’s some examples I read about in Alfie Kohn’s book Unconditional Parenting:
- Children who are rewarded for sharing a special toy with another child, are less likely to share when they aren’t expecting a reward from their parents ie. when Mommy’s not around.
- Children who go to school in environments where no grades are given out, have been shown to perform better on tests.
- And children who are paid to complete a puzzle, will stop playing with a puzzle after the experiment is over, while another child who’s just given the puzzle to play with for fun, will play with it much longer.
Here’s a KEY point!
This does not mean that positive reinforcement does not work. It actually works VERY well. But it only works well when the child is expecting to receive an award.
If the child has previously been rewarded for doing something, and is later in that same situation where he does NOT expect to get a reward, he will be less motivated to do it.
But it get’s even worse!
The bigger problem is that there really seems to be a lot of evidence that suggests that positive reinforcement as a technique for getting a child to do something actually TRAINS them to be extrinsically motivated… meaning they’ll grow up to be the kind of adult who won’t do anything unless they have something to gain for it.
And the evidence seems to suggest that these types of children grow up to be adults who won’t share, help, or give their all, unless they’re being compensated fairly to do so; instead of growing up to be intrinsically motivated to do things, even if there’s not an immediate payoff.
Does this mean positive reinforcement is ALL bad?
I don’t think so. If I ever get the chance to interview or speak with the person who I learned about this concept from, Alfie Kohn, I’d like to ask him how his theory applies to these areas of life:
- Teaching New Skills/Coaching: I think there are some loopholes in this theory when it pertains to coaching. (Or maybe I’m just fully grasping the concept) The best coaches in the world either use positive reinforcement, or punishment to get their players to perform better, and I think this is where positive reinforcement can play a role in learning, especially when the thing a child is trying to learn does not have any built in rewards.I know from personal experience as an athlete who played at the highest level of collegiate baseball there is, that it is impossible to get better as a baseball player without being told when you’re doing something right and when you’re doing it wrong.And I think some things in life require praise to be figured out.So it would seem to me that if you’re going to use Positive Reinforcement the key is probably to use VERY specific praise for something I was seeking advice for how to improve. Does that mean that when my coach praised me for a good swing I stopped trying? Absolutely NOT.But then again, maybe that’s because there was always a bigger reward out there in front of me… that maybe some day I could play professional ball.So maybe that’s it, maybe there are some things in life that this rule doesn’t apply to because they have built in rewards systems, where there is ALWAYS something bigger to strive for… and that’s why positive reinforcement works in those areas.
Does this mean you can never praise your child?
I think the biggest takeaway you can get from this article, is that if you ALWAYS use positive reinforcement for every little thing your child does, then research suggests you run a VERY hi risk of training them to just grow up to be approval seekers who won’t be self motivated to do things as they grow up to be adults, unless highly motivated.
Do I think this is the case for everything?
Instead I think the best thing to do is stop using positive reinforcement with your child for things they already get a lot of value from doing.
If your child finds it extremely rewarding to be nice to other children, then don’t reward them for it… they’re already getting rewarded by life’s NATURAL reward system, so why risk sabotaging it just so you can feel better about yourself.
But if you’re trying to help your child do something that’s good for them, but not necessarily intrinsically motivating, then why not reward them for it… especially since life won’t be supplying a reward.
For example, if a child is learning to tie their shoe, they usually can’t figure it out without some guidance, coaching and encouragement. It’s simply too complicated. In cases like these feel free to praise your child. Just be sure to praise specific efforts, like “that was a good job making the loop Jimmy, next you should try doing this”.
Think of it more like being a coach, instead of being a cheerleader.
Do You Agree, Disagree?
Prove to me you’re a living human being with a pulse by sharing your opinion on this topic by commenting below.
Looking for more information on whether or not to use positive reinforcement on your child?
One fascinating article I’d suggest you read is 5 Reasons To Stop Saying “Good Job”