Treasure Box Overload: Are We Over-Rewarding Our Children?
Are too many rewards cheapening them?
The first week of kindergarten, my oldest son came home from school with a little container of "jewels," those smooth, colored glass rocks you find at craft stores. He shook them happily and showed them to me. When I asked what they were for, he told me the students in his class each got a jewel for every day they stayed on green. Then, he had to explain the whole red, yellow, green system. Each child had a clothespin which started on green each day. If you followed the rules and stayed on green, you got a jewel at the end of the day. Then, when you had five jewels, you could trade them in at the treasure box.
I've never really been big on material reward systems for good behavior, but whatever. My son seemed to enjoy it. The first few weeks of school, he came home with various rinky-dink plastic toys he'd happily "bought" with his jewels from the treasure box. The next Friday, he came home with his jewels and no treasure. When I asked why, he said, "Oh, I just really like the jewels. They're pretty." Then, several days later, when we were sitting in the living room after school, he confided in me, "I got on yellow today, so I didn't get a jewel."
"Oh?" I said casually. "What for?"
"I was talking in the hallway."
"Don't you get two chances to stay on green?"
"Yeah, but I was talking twice….But I don't care. I have a lot of jewels."
I don't consider whispering in the hallway a major transgression, and I was actually relieved to see my child, who always takes the rules ridiculously seriously, relax a bit. The interesting thing was this: the reward system he was so excited about weeks earlier had worn off. I'd be willing to bet the same thing happened with many of the kids in his class. Having taught young children for many years, I've seen it before. The kids are all excited about stickers or candy or cheap plastic toys at first. Then, the kids who find it easy to follow the rules and always get the reward realize it's not much of a challenge and the reward is no longer valuable. The kids who find it difficult to follow the rules never receive the reward and cannot delay gratification long enough to have the reward influence their behavior. They give up.
My son's elementary school has so many reward systems in place for simply following the rules and doing what is expected, I cannot even keep track of them all. I have received multiple calls from the principal praising my son for behaving in the restroom (i.e., not yelling and spilling water all over the floor.) And, while I applaud their effort at calling parents for positive behavior and not just negative, it seems a little over the top. He actually got a gift certificate for a free hamburger and fries at a local fast food place, just for not acting like a hooligan in the bathroom.
All of this makes me wonder what kind of generation we are raising, when children can expect to be rewarded for doing the basics - getting to school on time and following school and classroom rules. I know it is difficult for some kids. Public school is designed for the kind of child who can sit still, listen, keep their hands to themselves and follow directions without running around the room and falling out of their chair. If you've spent any time with kids under the age of seven, you know this is a tall order. Let's explore why these various material reward systems are in place, why they don't work, what might work better, and what the future repercussions are for the children raised with these systems.
Article on the Risk of Rewards
Why Material Rewards Are Used
Going back to B.F. Skinner, early behaviorist experiments showed rats could be trained to run mazes for food rewards. Dogs could be trained to salivate at the sound of a bell, knowing the bell signified mealtime. This is the origin of the current behavior reward systems in our schools. It works to some extent. Some students will walk quietly in the hallway and keep their hands to themselves if they believe it will lead to reward. Here's the problem, though: the scientists weren't concerned about the rats expecting rewards later on in life. The experiments lasted a matter of seconds. No one worried about the dogs' self-esteems in the salivation experiments. Yet we constantly discuss school's impact on students' futures and the health of their self esteems. And, while material reward may impact behavior while the reward is in place, research shows, as soon as the reward is removed, the behavior is discontinued, which shows that a treasure-type reward for a positive act does not lead to a child internalizing that act as something he does simply because in his head, he knows it is right.
Why Material Rewards Don't Work
Material rewards do have a place, in moderation. Sometimes I motivate myself with material rewards, but that is self-driven. I have a larger goal in place and am using the material reward as a stepping stone to get where I want to be, i.e., if I exercise every day this week, I can go buy that new top I really want. I do this, however, because, through exercise, I have a long-term goal to be healthier. All of this is self generated. I have identified a long-term health goal that's important to me, and I have come up with a material reward I know will motivate me. With children in school, often the teacher imposes the larger goal (order in the classroom so everyone can learn), without cluing the children in to what it is or without their input. And, while some children may be motivated by jewels or treasure box toys, others may not. In addition, many young children are unable to delay gratification to the point they can use a reward at the end of a school day to influence their behavior at the beginning of it.
As I mentioned earlier, there is also the issue of the behavior discontinuing when the reward is removed. I believe this is especially true when the reward and the purpose for the behavior is generated by the teacher and not the students. Perhaps this is not an issue if your goal is simply to keep order in the classroom, but it is certainly of issue if you aim to produce responsible members of society who show integrity. In The Risks of Rewards, Alfie Kohn states...
In one representative study, young children were introduced to an unfamiliar beverage called kefir. Some were just asked to drink it; others were praised lavishly for doing so; a third group was promised treats if they drank enough. Those children who received either verbal or tangible rewards consumed more of the beverage than other children, as one might predict. But a week later these children found it significantly less appealing than they did before, whereas children who were offered no rewards liked it just as much as, if not more than, they had earlier (Birch et al., 1984). If we substitute reading or doing math or acting generously for drinking kefir, we begin to glimpse the destructive power of rewards. The data suggest that the more we want children to want to do something, the more counterproductive it will be to reward them for doing it.
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Logical Rewards and Consequences
Don't get me wrong about rule-following. When you have as many children in one place as a school does, you have to have rules, and you need ways of enforcing those rules - rewards for positive behavior and consequences for negative behavior. I've never met a child who did not love his teacher in kindergarten or first grade. One of the things we sell short sometimes is verbal praise. Often, with young children, a simple, "Thank you so much for remembering to walk quietly in the hallway," is enough to motivate them to continue the behavior and influence the children around them to follow suit. As a consequence for not being able to walk quietly in the hallway, after being reminded, I often had a student walk next to me, instead of in line - a logical consequence for the student and a problem-solver for me, since I could keep a closer eye on her. Save the big rewards, commendation by the principal and a call home, for more impressive behavior that goes beyond following the rules and shows true integrity. This is already the way negative behavior is handled. Students are disciplined at school for small infractions like talking in the hallway, and parents are only called for major or ongoing problems. If you want to provide a reward for the child walking quietly in the hall, why not let them choose their place in line? A reward or consequence occurring immediately after the behavior is much more effective than waiting until the end of the day or week.
Let's say you do want to give your students a reward for achieving something like reading, as a class, one hundred books. First of all you have to discuss why it's important: reading more books improves your reading skills, and the better you can read, the more information you can find out and the more complex and interesting books you can read. In this example, it would work best if you let the children read whatever they wanted - more motivating that being assigned a book on a topic in which they may or may not be interested. Then, let the students brainstorm ideas for a reward. Pick out the top three you could realistically pull off and let them vote. This way, you ensure the reward is something they value. They have to work hard to achieve it, but if the books they're reading are of their own choice, they can also have fun getting there. Letting the students choose the reward is key, as is not over-rewarding. If you use a material reward system for everything, it becomes confusing and reduces the worth of the reward. Material rewards should be an infrequent thing, both at school and at home.
What the Future Holds for Integrity
My concern is that, as these children grow into adulthood, they will take with them a, "what will you give me for it?" mentality. They will expect to be rewarded for getting up in the morning and getting to work on time - actions which may be grounds to keep your job but certainly not for commendation or more than a cost-of-living raise. I realize it's a bit dramatic to talk about a doomsday scenario where we degenerate into a culture of mediocrity and greed. There will always be those adults out there, now and in the future, willing to go above and beyond what is asked of them and willing to do so with little reward or praise. There will always be those out there with a strong work ethic. But will they become disenchanted when their coworkers have to be told how wonderful they are just so they'll do their job? Or will those who work hard regardless of praise excel in society and leave their needy counterparts behind? Whatever the future brings, I want my children and the children of my community to grow up realizing that following certain rules makes for a peaceful society. I'd also like them to have the wherewithal to examine those rules and speak up or even ignore them if they truly, intellectually think them stupid or unfair. And I'd like them to do so, not because they'll be on television or a get shiny sticker, but because it's the right thing to do.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.