My last blog piece, "Done with Rewards" was a short rant probably triggered by some interchange between a parent and their kid at the coffee place where I was hanging out and writing. As I said...
I know I’m done with rewards. I have come to find the whole concept demeaning and rude and so 20th Century. Behavior modification, extrinsic motivation, gold stars, contests, "races to the top", it all seems to no longer be useful in the evolution of our species. I think we are finally ready to let motivation be intrinsic and allow everyone to be who they really are and not what the rest of us want them to be instead.
If you read any of the pieces about my own childhood, I was raised by very unorthodox parents including a mom who believed that "kids will tell you what they need." So she and my dad somehow never got caught up in the whole rewards and punishments thing. They just gave me a lot of love and encouragement, noted what I spent my time doing and listened to my thoughts so they could provide me with the best possible enriched environment for me to grow up in.
That included what I have come to call "imagination toys" (Tinker Toys, plastic figures and dinosaurs, Lincoln Logs, various boxes I could turn into boats and submarines, etc.) and an unfinished slab basement where I could set them up and create my imaginary worlds. It also included them finding places to live always next to parks where I could go and play with the neighborhood kids.
I was never punished or rewarded in my entire youth. My parents had no agenda for me other than enjoying my own internally directed development, so they had no need to reward me for doing things I would not have done otherwise.
Unfortunately when my partner Sally and I became parents we got caught up in the whole rewards and "tough love" thing when our kids were young, trying particularly to encourage our son Eric to go to school, do his homework, and get to bed (early enough to be rested for school the next morning) when he did not want to. At the recommendation of an educational therapist, we had devised and implemented a whole system of stickers and rewards for earning a certain amount of them.
But from the beginning it did not go well. Once we shared with Eric the whole system, he was smart enough to quickly see this is just a veiled form of punishment, which his mom and I claimed we were not into.
So despite offering various types of rewards (that Eric was happy to take a pass on), I was dragging Eric out of bed every day in middle school, having him take Adderall (based on an ADD diagnosis and a doctor's advice), and leaving him crying on the curb by his school, we finally threw in the towel. We faced the fact that (though it might be working okay for some other kids we knew) a school completely directed by adults using standardized curriculum was just not a healthy learning environment for him, and my partner and I decided to pull him out and let him stay home.
Eric was 13 and now he is 25 and a successful young adult and a wonderful "mensch" of a person. Since we pulled him out of school and stopped pestering him to do school assignments, we have never had to or even had the inkling of rewarding or punishing him. It was a complete and profound paradigm shift which I probably can't do justice to with mere words.
After about a year in this new paradigm their was a profound shift in him, which I did not fully understand until he talked about it nine years later. When I first started doing my blog two year ago, I thought to interview Eric (age 22 at the time), record our conversation and publish elements of the transcript as a blog piece. About his last year of school in eighth grade, Eric said...
I felt like it was very difficult for me to be myself, or express the things I wanted to do or didn’t want to do, like put up with the whole school situation or homework assignments that I was having a really hard time with, and ultimately I think I used [lying] as a tool to cope with that and try to relieve some of that burden.
I think Eric was responding to all the behavior modification techniques (of rewards at home plus grades and punishments at school) being practiced to manipulate him by developing his own techniques of manipulation, including being disingenuous, in response. When I interviewed him, Eric talked about his experience in a Unitarian-Universalist high school youth camp where the youth basically ran everything themselves and interacted with each other genuinely, and the adults were not there to try and run things or otherwise do any behavior mod...
I had been so wrapped up in all the lies, and that with other people I knew I would be judged if I revealed to them or withdrew from these positions, you know, but here there would be no judgment. I could just be myself, and I chose and decided to do that. Fortunately it was a comfortable environment where I felt very comfortable being able to do that, but I just decided that this is not something that I wanted to be part of my life anymore. Not only was it no longer advantageous for me, but I really felt bad about it, like I felt it was a hindrance and I wanted genuine relationships with people. I wanted to have the trust that people held in me be well founded. I didn’t want to lie and manipulate. I didn’t want that anymore, and here was an opportunity where I could stop.
I think the same liberation he felt at camp he eventually felt at home once we (his parents) stopped trying to direct his life and manipulate his behavior. After enough time in this new paradigm he felt the transformation...
So today I have really make it a priority in my life to be a person of character, at least the way I view myself. I want to be someone I can be proud of. I want to be someone I want to be, and right now I am. In dealing with others, I place a very high priority on dealing fairly and honestly. I’m very open about trust and trust issues.
Along the way as a parent, when I finally faced it honestly, "rewards" was just a euphemism for behavior modification, that is trying to get someone to do something they would not otherwise do based on their own sense of ethics and purpose. The conventional thinking as I understand it is that if you can manipulate someone into doing good behavior they will feel the intrinsic rewards and then you can withdraw the manipulation. Certainly it can be a well-intentioned effort and even work at times (at least to some degree), or else people wouldn't keep trying or recommending that others do so.
This by the way, is one of those areas that separates my evolving left-libertarianism from conventional liberals and progressives, many of whom are perfectly comfortable applying rewards and other techniques of behavior modification on people in general but particularly kids, for the cause of encouraging ethical and humanistic behavior.
But I am now convinced that it is a slippery slope once you start to try and manipulate people with rewards. The honesty of a truly respectful relationship can begin to be challenged by the conceit of the manipulation. The person being rewarded has got to think at some level, "If you truly love who I am inside, why are you asking me to not be true to my own compass?" And then perhaps they start making the necessary adjustments to try to protect that unique being that they are inside from your judgmental gaze.
I think my own kids (and I before them) are success stories in eschewing the use of rewards (and punishments). Said my son Eric in our "interview"...
And overall, it’s kind of the Golden Rule when it comes down to it. I look at how I want people to interact with me, to treat me, and to have relationships with me. I feel if I am reasonably to expect those things, I need to live that and I need to be that, and interact with people in that way. I feel that I am a lot healthier of a person for it, and I have these wonderful real relationships with people, and I don’t need to lie. I’m confident enough in who I am, what I do, and the choices I make that I can just be that and live that.
The Golden Rule, rather than the perhaps more conventionally practiced, "he who has the gold makes the rules."