Friday, November 14, 2008

Punishment and Rewards

If you were have been preparing for a lengthy post on Foucault, fear not, dear reader. It is just a link to a decent conversation held over at the New York Times with Alfie Kohn as a follow-up on a "Motherlode" column in which she discussed paying kids for good behavior.

While I always strive to be a Kohnistic Parent, I am also an economist, firmly rooted in the tradition of incentivization. This is all to say that punishments and rewards have not been absent in our parenting style.

Even just last night at 2:40 in the morning when Eight was arguing with me (or at least attempting to do so) about how she should be able to sleep with me since BioMom was out of town, I ultimately threatened to take away the pizza and ice cream that had been promised for the impending Friday Family Fun Night.

Let's face it. At 2:40 in the morning, I'll do just about anything to get almost anyone to stop talking.

As usual, Kohn promotes the notion of intrinsic motivation:

Rewards and punishments are not opposites; they are two sides of the same coin and that coin doesn’t buy very much. The one thing you can get by dangling a goody in front of children if they do what you want is the same thing you can get by threatening to make them suffer if they don't do what you want. What you get is temporary compliance, but it comes at a very steep cost.

To be honest, in the short run, as in getting Big to stop jumping on Eight, or throwing water all over the bathroom, or dumping his food onto the floor, short run compliance is all I'm hoping for.

Sometimes without short-run compliance, I fear I'll lose my long-run sanity.

In the long-run, he argues:

There is intrinsic motivation, which means doing something because it seems worthwhile in its own right, and extrinsic motivation, where you do something just to get a goody. Not only are these two different, they are inversely related. That’s why research shows that the more you reward people, the less interest they come to have in whatever they had to do to get the reward. The more you offer extrinsic motivators, the more intrinsic motivation tends to decline.

In general, I agree with him. But here are my few exceptions:
1. In the short run when either their safety or my sanity is on the line.
2. When my goal is to just expand their exposure or to improve their physical health: new foods, vegetables and exercise and lastly,
3. Until they get old enough to be slightly more rational about things.

Eight loves to read, hates veggies, loves carbohydrates, hates practicing piano, and would generally prefer to be indoors to outdoors, and would love to while away most of her day in front of the television. Her intrinsic motivation would lead her to be a not-very-well-rounded individual, and most likely, not particularly healthy. Maybe this isn't such a bad thing, and Kohn would probably argue that she'll end up being who she is as an adult regardless of what we do. In the mean time, in addition to being the best models that we can be for her, we also prod a little.

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