Why stickers, treats and ‘tificates don’t work (much)

When I was an undergrad at The University of Western Australia (UWA) I did Psychology 101. When we were studying human behaviour we did a lab experiment where we used rewards to teach a cute white rat to get food by touching a lever.

The idea was that when the rat touched the lever it got food (and it was rewarded) and if it didn’t it went without. After two weeks I found my rat dead –– he never learnt about how to get the food. Everyone else’s rats were doing great or were over eating! I was quite upset at this death and on reflection decided to give up psychology. I also decided that using rewards to change behaviour was not something I valued.

Fast-forward to my teaching career and my own parenting and I now realise I unconsciously avoided using external or extrinsic rewards  –deeply scarred by my rat experiment as I was! I got a bit more insight into this when I heard a presentation from UWA’s Associate Professor Helen Street at the fantastic Positive Schools conference when she presented on Rewards, Punishments and Motivation.

“Children who are continually motivated by the immediate positive emotion associated with extrinsic rewards tend to hold a limited one-dimensional idea of wellbeing. They may also feel punished when rewards are not forthcoming. Teachers are left handing out increasingly verbose praise until we have not only lowered the standards by which we judge our children; we have made sure that high marks are almost obligatory. ‘A’ becomes the first letter of average.”   — Associate Professor Helen Street

In today’s worried world it seems like many children get stickers for simply breathing! It seems the negative effects of the warm fuzzy self-esteem movement from the US many years ago have confused our parents and teachers. Have you noticed that children don’t need to be given a reward for sitting down to watch a much-anticipated movie or to eat ice cream or chocolate? These are activities that come with a built-in reward, the immediate reward of positive emotion.

In contrast, teachers and parents often encourage less desirable activities with extrinsic rewards that offer the immediate positive emotion lacking in the task.

Of course this is not we want – and that’s why it is important to set the record straight! We give children lollies, chocolate, money and toys for contributing to housework, stickers for sitting quietly in class and grade ‘A’s for handing in well-written reports.  However successful this type of extrinsic motivation may appear in the short-term, it presents a number of significant inhibitors to a love of life-long learning.

De-motivating kids with rewards

Parents in some schools have become so focused on these extrinsic rewards especially stickers, stamps and certificates at assembly that I have heard of parents chastising teachers because their child has only had one certificate and others have had more. The terror of upsetting children has led to an irrational quest to make sure our kids ‘feel good’.

Dr Alfie Kohn has explored significant research that shows that these extrinsic rewards often actually de-motivate our children.

A very special friend of mine who is an early years’ educator with a four-year degree was very surprised when her 5-year-old came home from school in her first week of ‘big school’ and when her Mum asked her to hang up her school bag she came back and asked for a sticker! WTH? “We don’t do stickers in our house – we do things when asked nicely because it’s the right thing to do!” my friend said.

Essentially kids will need bigger and bigger rewards to do what we would like them to do if they don’t have an inner locus of control that gives them an intrinsic sense of positive emotion. That’s why a ‘thank you’ or a wink, or a quick hug or pat on the head or thumbs up is so much better to validate the effort.

Allowing disappointment

The other side to changing behaviour is definitely discouraging what we don’t want and helping our kids to become emotionally buoyant when things don’t go their way. Many of you have heard me growl at the modern pass-the-parcel game where everyone gets a prize rather than just having one winner. Same goes for inviting everyone in the class to a child’s birthday party – so you don’t hurt people’s feelings.

Children can and need to learn about setbacks – disappointment is an emotional state we all dislike and yet we can learn to deal with it. Well-meaning parents often use food, toys, treats and other ‘stuff’ to help their children overcome disappointment. This can create confusion in our children and set them up to use unhealthy ways of managing disappointments in later life! Notice this brings us back to using external rewards to bring comfort, and as adults we can turn to Tim Tams, chocolate, alcohol or junk food full of fat and sugar!

We need our children to know failure and disappointment ‘sucks’ and makes us feel ‘yucky’ and that our family and friends can help us recover by listening to us, being with us – giving us warmth and safe touch and hopefully some laughter and lightness.

I also think kids can benefit from knowing life comes with bumps and bruises and gifts and delights – and that it happens to everyone. “This too will pass” and “Ain’t life interesting?” are great de-fusers for those tough moments!

Research shows quite clearly that giving stamps and stickers to reward nice behaviour towards others actually increases the opposite behaviour. It decreases sympathy and empathy and makes children mean (damn!).

Professor Street says this is similar to the yearning for ‘fame and fortune’ and other forms of public celebration. They can drive individuals towards those extrinsic rewards while they may secretly hate what they are doing.

The use of rewards also increases compliance and obedience, which at first sight may seem like a great idea in the home and classroom. If we were planning to keep our kids at home forever like we do our cats and dogs, then this form of behaviour modification would be excellent!

Sadly in the long-term the increase in extrinsic rewards deprives individuals of self-determination so they can live healthy independent lives.

What, no more stickers?

Maybe this is why there is such massive disengagement in high school? Hormones, growth spurts, mental chaos, emotional roller coaster rides and no more stickers?

I spent 17 years teaching in secondary schools and while I seldom used extrinsic rewards, there was certainly a place for some rewards. The unexpected acknowledgment, the thank you note, the well-done lolly jar, the smile and the good mark gained from increased effort.

And I confess to bribing and coercing my own lads with the promise of chocolate, ice cream and lollies and it worked a treat. However, it was occasional and not every day. I sometimes wonder if researchers have ever taught at the coalface for years or lived in a home with multiple children. That’s often when our choices are based on survival and not sound, evidence-based research.

Andrew Martin, educational researcher and author of How to motivate your child for school and beyond agrees. He writes that rewards can sometimes be used effectively with young children –– just not for long. Rewards can be helpful getting disengaged students engaged and also can be useful to sustain kids’ interest in school work until the work becomes more personally interesting or enjoyable. Once a child is interested it may be best to back off rewards and offer encouragement instead.

When rewards work

Last night I was lucky to have dinner with two of the Dent lads in Sydney and we chatted about the research. Both of them disagreed and said they loved extrinsic rewards – yep even the stickers and the certificates! Even today they like to be rewarded for exceptional effort with more money … who doesn’t? Maybe the temperament of our kids is another factor to consider. Roosters value winning and being first much more than lambs, so maybe this is another angle to consider in the mix?

OK so the carrot and stick method of motivation has limited use in our schools or homes – if you do X you will get Y. However we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The important message is that constant rewards or the over-use of rewards can de-motivate rather than motivate.

In a nutshell if teachers give positive acknowledgement to students, you should give it to all. If you give lollies, everyone gets them. That way we build that essential ‘belonging’ while not increasing the chance of turning our students into performing monkeys, desperate for approval and public rewards.

In our homes a strong sense of connectedness and belonging is the absolute best reward that our children yearn for.

Knowing you are loved unconditionally – even when you wet the bed, tell fibs and don’t do so well on your NAPLAN is one the most profound secrets of happy families. If this is happening, then it’s safe for our kids to make mistakes and fail without fear, instead of being made to feel responsible for their parents’ happiness because it’s unacceptable to be less than perfect.

Kids need to be kids – noisy, spontaneous, dirty, chaotic and unpredictable and no they don’t need to be manipulated to be kind, committed and motivated!

So let’s revisit the notion of rewards in our playgroups, school halls and car parks, coffee shops and in social media and help build self-directed, self-motivated kids and adolescents.