Bribes and Threats Work, But...

Some time ago, I was doing movement activities with a group of five-year-olds. I wanted them to stand straight and tall but, following the philosophy of movement education, I didn't want to simply tell them to stand straight and tall. Instead, I asked them to imagine their bodies were like tree trunks reaching from the ground to the sky - and that their feet were like the trunk's roots, securing them to the ground and keeping them steady.

Suddenly, one little girl angrily announced, "I'm not in the Army!"

Whoa. I was stunned. Where had that come from? And what was I supposed to say or do in response?

Remembering my early childhood studies, I turned to another child, who was standing precisely as I'd envisioned. "That's exactly right!" I exclaimed. "You're standing so nice and straight and tall!" And when I looked back at my little dissenter, she, too, was now standing straight and tall, because she, too, wanted to be rewarded with praise.

Blatant manipulation? Absolutely. Still, I never thought of it that way until I heard Alfie Kohn do a speech based on his book, Punished by Rewards, at a conference. He passionately explained that rewards and punishment are actually mirror images of each other, both used for the purpose of getting kids to do what we want.

I remember debating with myself during my two-hour drive home. Was there something different that I should have done with my little "soldier?" Was it absolutely necessary that she stand straight and tall? In the end, there was one conclusion I couldn't avoid: I had rewarded one child with praise in order to control another.

Many years later, Edward Deci told me in a BAM Radio interview that "praise is all too often used by people as a way to control kids." Of course, by that time, I was solidly on his - and Alfie's - side, having read Punished by Rewards and a great deal of research demonstrating that neither "bribes" nor threats are effective in the long-term for either behavior management or building character/fostering intrinsic motivation.

In fact, there's so much research determining the ineffectiveness - the detriment - of using rewards and punishment that it's hard to imagine why any teacher or parent would continue to employ them, or why any pre-service program would continue to recommend their use. But they do.

Not long ago, in fact, in an online forum, a teacher asked, "Is it okay to bribe your students?" I was fascinated and dismayed by the responses. While an overwhelming number of teachers objected to the word "bribe" (insisting that "reward" was a more appropriate term), they did indeed think this was a great practice because it helps "prepare kids for the real world."

Just as the little soldier's comment had stopped me in my tracks so, too, did that one. Apparently the belief is that rewarding kids is no different from adults receiving bonuses for a job well done in the "real world." The contention disturbed me, so I gathered together some experts for a BAM interview and posed the question: Is rewarding kids similar to adults receiving bonuses for a job well done? Dan Pink's response? "I think it is similar, and I think it's similarly ineffective."

Dan, the author of Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, calls these kinds of things "if/then rewards": If you do this, then you get that. He explained that 50 years of social science tell us they are effective as performance boosters but only for simple tasks "with very short time horizons." He added,

... the same body of research tells us they are far, far, far less effective for work that requires judgment, discernment, creativity, conceptual thinking, and for work that has a longtime horizon. There's nothing inherently evil about if/then rewards; it's just that if we really want our kids to be creative, conceptual thinkers - have longtime horizons and not be ... just mice chasing after the next bit of cheese, then we have to abandon our heavy, heavy, heavy reliance on if/then rewards in all circumstances.

Dan maintained that the evidence is "overwhelming" that these practices do not work and in some cases even have "collateral consequences that ought to terrify us."

When I asked the remaining panelists why the research is being ignored, they - teachers all - agreed that it comes down to compliance. The quick fix. And they admitted that achieving compliance is easier than getting engagement - the latter of which is what keeps kids motivated.

Asked teacher Josh Stumpenhorst, "Are you trying to create compliant students or engaged learners?"

Early childhood educator Deborah Stewart, in an email sent to me following the interview, wrote, "...just know that the best way to get children to listen, care, and respect each other and you is to capture their attention and get them engaged. A compliant child may make your job seem easier, but an engaged child will make your job rewarding."


Instant gratification, "easy," and "it's always been done this way" aren't appropriate reasons to keep bribing or punishing kids if we're truly concerned about their future and the kind of human beings we're helping to mold.

This piece is excerpted from the author's forthcoming book, tentatively titled What If Everybody Understood Child Development?, to be published by Corwin in 2015.