lfie Kohn has been writing for years about the counterproductive effects of competition, punishment, and rewards on children- and in fact on people of any age. Research shows that competition, rather than motivating children, actually reduces and narrows productivity and interest. Similarly, punishments and rewards which are meant to have a positive impact on ethical development and responsible behavior do not help children to become caring and responsible. They make a child focus on “What’s going to happen to me?” or “What’s in it for me?” and foster self-centeredness, rather than a spirit of community.
The same dynamic applies when children are praised for anything and everything in hopes of increasing self-esteem or reinforcing a blossoming interest. I was in the grocery store and a woman asked the four- or five-year-old boy who was with her to get a box of Cheerios and put it in their cart. When he did, she said, “What a great shopper you are. You’re Nana’s good little shopper.” A simple “Thank you” and a request for more items would have dignified his interest. Children know when they have done something worth doing, and praise from another person is not only unnecessary, but it also diminishes a personal feeling of accomplishment. And, again, the research shows that praise and rewards decrease a person’s interest in an activity.
Kohn suggests that competition, rewards and punishment are all ways to manage and manipulate behavior or productivity. It may be superficially successful, but it is “doing to,” rather than “working with.”
We see this in the classroom: children’s interests have to be supported by the chance to concentrate on independent work. Once they have the satisfaction of accomplishment (and of being “worked with”), they are able to step out of themselves to be generous members of a community.
But what to do when children are always squabbling in the back seat of the car, when pokiness begins to impact everyone’s schedule, when being “first” at an activity is more important than the activity, when . . .? The answer is there is no answer. We have to be able to solve problems with our children in different ways. We can’t opt for the prescriptions of assertive discipline, positive reinforcement, logical consequences; we have to keep thinking.
This is meant to get you interested in reading Alfie Kohn, but certainly doesn’t convey that he is as entertaining as he is thought-provoking. Try listening to the tape of his talk at the American Montessori Society as a warm-up to No Contest: The Case Against Competition or Punished by Rewards.