Rewards, Praise, and Punishments

Rewards, Praise, and Punishments

Episode #13 | Rewards, Praise, and Punishment

We can’t discuss the big idea of authority without addressing rewards and punishments. Do they actually contribute to our goal of developing moral, disciplined, and curious kids? What are the temporal and spiritual effects of extrinsic motivation? And if we shouldn’t use extrinsic motivators, what is the better way to motivate children? I’ll answer these questions and more on this episode.


“Do rewards motivate people? Absolutely. They motivate people to get rewards.” (Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards)

“The principles of authority on the one hand, and of obedience on the other, are natural, necessary and fundamental; but–

These principles are limited by the respect due to the personality of children, which must not be encroached upon whether by the direct use of fear or love, suggestion or influence, or by undue play upon any one natural desire.” (Charlotte Mason, Twenty Principles)

“[grades], prizes, places, rewards, punishments, praise, blame, or other inducements are not necessary to secure attention, which is voluntary, immediate and surprisingly perfect” without them. (Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, p. 7.)

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“Do rewards motivate people? Absolutely. They motivate people to get rewards.” (Alfie Kohn)[4]

Rewards and punishments are two sides of the same coin.

“The principles of authority on the one hand, and of obedience on the other, are natural, necessary and fundamental; but–

These principles are limited by the respect due to the personality of children, which must not be encroached upon whether by the direct use of fear or love, suggestion or influence, or by undue play upon any one natural desire.

“[grades], prizes, places, rewards, punishments, praise, blame, or other inducements are not necessary to secure attention, which is voluntary, immediate and surprisingly perfect” without them. (Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, p. 7.)

After graduating college I left the world of academia armed with tools of behaviorism (from my teaching courses, of course). I was ready to teach children, motivate them, and help them succeed! But of course I learned that rewarding good behavior is much more effective (and humane) than punishing bad behavior. I think most parents will agree that we feel better about ourselves rewarding our children than punishing them. But is rewarding actually morally superior than punishments? And are they actually effective in achieving our long term goals – developing character? 

Years of research studies show that rewarding does four major things:

  • Decreases enjoyment of activity 
  • Makes people much less likely to continue a behavior once the rewards end
  • Results in sub-par performance — people end up doing the bare minimum to get the reward and avoid risk, because making mistakes will prevent them from getting the reward.
  • Increases cheating. The task is just something between you and the reward. Many people will cheat  to get the reward, especially if it’s a cash. (source)

Over the years I’ve discovered these truths first-hand.  Here are just a few examples: 

When potty training my oldest I gave him a small treat every time he peed in the toilet. So he learned how to control his bladder and peed three drops every 3 minutes and raked in the treats all day long. 

I used money as rewards for household jobs, and most days my boys said “I don’t really need any money.” And I ended up doing all the cleaning. 

I made the mistake of once giving my son a reward for helping me, and for a few months afterwards every time I’d ask him for help he’d ask “What will I get?” 

And the most dramatic example of how rewards can actually be counter effective is when we began night training my 5 year old. 

At the beginning of training, my husband offered the reward of ice cream the morning after our son  kept his bed dry all night. As a side note: we waited for any type of training to see if he would grow out of it. We waited until he was developmentally ready and then used an alarm system that woke up him as soon as he started peeing. Since bed wetting is clearly genetic and out of the control of the child, we approached it with a lot of compassion and understanding. We never shame or punish for bed wetting. Ok, just want to make that clear 🙂 

So, the first night of training my son was awakened by his alarm a few times. The next week  he only wet once per night. And each night he peed less and less.  He was clearly making progress! But every morning he woke up, groggy and forgetful of the night before and asked “Did I stay dry? Can we get ice cream today?” And when my husband said “not yet, but you’re getting so close!” my son broke down in tears. He was so disappointed. The ice cream reward ended up being a punishment instead of a reward. 

After a few years of parenting I  began to realize that rewarding and punishing were two sides of the same coin. Both are extrinsic motivators, working on short-term behavior change. Although these may work in a classroom setting where immediate behavior change is desired, parents should be focused on long-term character change. 

I was introduced to Charlotte Mason’s philosophy when my oldest was four and, as I mentioned in earlier episodes, her philosophy resonated with something deep in my heart, but my mind still had a hard time rejecting the idea of behaviorism as the solution to all parenting problems.  I did my own research into current scientific studies and discovered that rewards/punishments actually inhibit learning, just like Miss Mason observed over 100 years ago. What I realized was resorting to rewards/punishment is actually a sign of poor teaching/parenting skills! When we resort to rewarding and punishing we lack the leadership skills, knowledge, and patience to motivate children in the right ways. It was a humbling experience, but the beginning of my true teacher education. 


But what about praise? So many parenting books recommend praise as the holy grail to behavior change. Is it the magical fix that it’s made up to be? Well, It seems that it’s much more complicated than simply throwing out some verbal goodies.  In fact, it may cause more problems than you’re trying to fix. First, I should define what praise I’m talking about. Any verbal expression that is motivated to manipulate a person. It is exaggerated,  generic, and focused on self. 

Examples of Praise: 

“Wow! You’re a great artist!”

“You’re a good kid.” 

“I’m so proud of you.” 

“You’re an amazing artist!” 

Verbal affirmations and appreciation are important, but these are different from praise. On the other hand, verbal affirmations are genuine and specific. They focus on how another person feels as a result of behavior, versus how people feel about you. They express gratitude. And they are meant to give honest feedback on a task. 

Here are some examples: 

“I really appreciate your help with dinner today. Thank you” 

 “I’ve noticed you shared your Legos with your brother. Did you see his big smile on his face?”

“Yes, you did that correctly.”

“You’ve worked so hard on  that handwriting stroke, and you finally mastered it!” 

What are the negative consequences for praising our children too much? 

First, praise can make children (and people of all ages) feel guilty  and distrustful. Dr. Haim Ginott, psychologist and author of Between Parent and Child, shares the story of a child who is told he is “such a good boy” and immediately turns around and dumps the car’s ashtray all over the car. The boy later recalls how his parents comment made him feel guilty,  like an imposter, like he somehow wanted to show his parents who he really was, and not a “good boy.” As adults we may not show our feelings in such extreme ways, but when praised for being “such a wonderful mom” we all feel that twang of guilt because all we can think of is how we yelled at our child just an hour before. It may feel shallow and ingenuine. We may not trust, or take to heart, what that person has to say in the future. Looking back on the most encouraging words people have said to me as a mother, they are things like “You handled that well” after my child threw a major tantrum in public and I maintained calm and patience. Or, “You love your children so much”

And, since children are born persons, I believe they feel the same way. Encouraging, genuine, and specific verbal affirmations are the most internalized by the receiver.

Second, if we teach our children to behave a certain way for praise from people they admire then we are teaching them to depend on extrinsic motivation. Then we should be surprised when they behave a certain way to seek praise from their peers.  

Ultimately, children need to be taught what is right and then given the space to desire to choose the right,  even if it’s unpopular. Teaching children to do things for praise is teaching them to desire popularity. Whether they want to be popular with their parents or peers, it’s the same. 

Third, an overdependence on praise can cause sibling rivalry. I’ve noticed the more I openly praise a child the more contention there is between siblings. When I say things like “Look everyone! Theo took his dish to the sink without being asked!” or “Wow! I’m so impressed with your drawing, Sawyer.”  The other kids now feel the need to one-up his brother or get my attention. Pretty soon my days are filled with “Look at this!” “Watch me!” “I can jump higher, draw better, etc” 

This is especially true if my purpose in praising one child is to hopefully motivate my other children to behave in the same way. 

Think about it this way: What if your boss constantly and openly  praised/rewarded your coworkers.  How would that affect your relationship with the coworker? How would it affect your work? 

If we feel the need to give positive feedback or appreciation, it is best to do it privately. 

Spiritual Damage of Rewarding 11:30

Heavenly Father uses the word “reward” often in the scriptures. The righteous will be rewarded, the wicked will be punished. So does that mean we should reward our children for good behavior and punish them for bad?

First, in Matthew 6:1 Jesus says “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.”  When we reward our children for their behavior (whether that’s praise, prizes, money)  we are teaching them to care about what men (parents, peers, teachers, etc) think about them and to seek after the rewards of men. By rewarding/punishing good behavior we are actually going against what Jesus taught!  We want  them to know what is right and the reward is a good feeling inside of doing what they know is right. We can help that by saying “you did what you knew was right” “how do you feel?” or “I bet that made you feel good inside”

Second, when we instill the attitude of “good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior is punished” we are setting up our children to have a complicated relationship with Heavenly Father and those around us. 

If we view all events and circumstances in our life through that lens how will we not become prideful?

 “I must be really righteous because I’m so blessed.” 

“That person must be making bad choices because terrible things keep happening to them.”

Or resentful and angry at God:

“I’ve followed all the commandments and done everything right. Why are these things happening to me?”

“That person is living a wicked life and yet they are blessed with success and wealth.”

Think about the blind man that Jesus healed. The Pharisees assumed his parents must have committed a serious sin and their son’s disability was their punishment. 

Think about Job and his friends. They assumed Job must have sinned, and if he didnt sin then he should “curse God and die.” Our goal as parents should not be to raise children like Job’s friends who view circumstances as rewards or punishments, or to be righteous only to avoid eternal hell fire. We want to raise children like Job, who is righteous because he loves God and his reward is the peace that comes from doing the right thing.

Heavenly Father warns us of the natural consequences of our choices. Similar to me telling my boys that the reward for brushing their teeth is healthy gums and cavity-free teeth. I am not punishing them when they get a filling, nor did I reward them with healthy teeth. In a similar way,  I like to think of Heavenly Father as a loving mentor and guide, sharing His knowledge and experience with his children,  not as a dictator doling out rewards or punishments based on arbitrary rules. 

Natural Consequences

So how will children learn if they aren’t punished? I think as parents we take too much upon ourselves; we impose arbitrary punishments and at the same time try to shelter our children from the natural consequences of their choices. Shielding your child from the natural consequences IS NOT punishing your child. If they continually forget their homework and expect you to bring it to them, it is not a punishment to tell them “No, I have too much to do today. Tonight I’ll help you brainstorm solutions to this problem.”

How to motivate without rewards 14:37

Children are naturally born curious with a desire to learn. Any lack of this desire can be attributed to extrinsic forces at work. Children also have a natural desire to emulate adults and live a meaningful life, contributing to the home and community. But this isn’t a quick-fix, it’s a long process. So, How can parents nurture desire and motivation in children? 

  • Evaluate Content — Is what you’re asking reasonable? Is it developmentally appropriate?  Is the content of school interesting and inspiring? Does it give them something to think about? 
  • Activate desire – The mind and heart must be hungry for nourishment.  Embrace BOREDOM and turn off screens! Activate dopamine (the “get up and go” aid)  (learning is its own reward) Encourage children to work hard at what they love. In other words, help them enter a state of flow. Keep lessons short and stop while the child is still enjoying it. Children’s brains are actually primed to this by PLAYING (high intrinsic motivation and high attention) 
  • Allow them choices (support their sense of autonomy and control) page 110 of SDC and 16 of HGVYC. Expect obedience to your big choices, and give them small choices. 
  • Small Steps– focus on growth and effort instead of product. People are motivated not when they think they are the “best” at something, but when they think they are competent. Simplify tasks by breaking them down into small chunks, and ask your child to point out what THEY think they did well on and what THEY want to work on. 
  • Use Natural Consequences – Nothing is more motivating than real life experiences that prove to us we need to learn and grow.
  • Recognize promptings of Spirit — instead of training your children to rely on your or others for  acknowledge and praise, teach them to recognize the feelings that come from the Spirit. that warm feeling when you choose the right or make someone happy. 

To safeguard enthusiasm and create a refreshing atmosphere:

  1. give children something interesting to think about,
  2. let the authors teach,
  3. require children to think, show and tell—all the way through high school,
  4. expect their obedience to your big choices; give them small choices,
  5. inspire them to share and serve others with what they know as they grow.

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