Children love rewards. They will do almost anything for their favourite treat, a trip to see someone or something that they yearn to see, sweets, money, PC games, new toys; you name it and if your child wants it, they become putty in your hands. To this end many of us have fallen prey to the mentality of bribing our children to do x for y. But how good is this for them as a long a term strategy and what actually is going on behind the scenes when we use such incentives to motivate our children?
In life, the argument goes, that we have to work and we work to make a living for survival. But part of that process is the reward game – do something and get a reward (albeit a salary). To this end it is hardwired into us that we have to do to get! Even when we believe that consciously believe we are doing something completely selflessly, say with altruistic endeavour, there is a philosophy which some subscribe to that would suggest that the person who gives out still receives in terms of the feel good factor etc etc. And so in essence the “to do, to get” becomes entrenched in our psychologies from an early age. In childhood, you only have to sit somewhere near young children and overhear parents talking to their children to hear the “if you do this, you will get that” offered on more than one occasion. At school, this becomes marked further with reward systems, from merits to certificates to prizegivings to the plethora of processes that schools adopt to elicit better behaviour and higher grades out of their students. Into the world of work, and employers offer pay for skills, time, energy whatever it is and often bonuses and incentive schemes also echoed in other areas of the commercial world. We only have to think of the supermarket where we buy our shopping and instantly receive points for doing so, or the chance if you subscribe to x through such a forum, to enter into a free prize draw! Globally, we have bought in this system of reward and so many of us never question the veracity of it.
Of course, the opposite side of the coin, shows that by taking away also counteracts bad behaviour or promotes better output. The child will have their favourite toy taken away for behaving badly until they reform their ways, the detention will be given to the child at school for not handing in their homework to teach them that they have to hand it in, at work, employees run the risk of being fired from their work if they don’t come up to scratch and of course, freedom can be taken away from those who embrace a criminal lifestyle. All of these reward and punishments are set in place in society to help up adhere to the codes of social compliance, to maximise on potential, to be the best, to contribute the most and to do better amongst a million other reasons which I cannot possibly list here!
And the reasoning is based in a million and one psychologies and sciences each with their own plausible reasons from the behaviourism of B F Skinner to the insights that scientists have made as to how an area of the brain responds to the stimulus of reward and punishment in chemical terms affecting behaviour.
But in the modern world that we live in, as parents, the buy in to the behaviourist principals of reward have in many parts gone wild! It now isn’t unheard of parents bribing their youngsters to potty train for a significant prize to those offering teenagers huge cash incentives to get A*’s in exams. The need to be the best, to do the best, to be the most special is overwhelming and apart from costing a small fortune is missing the basic, intrinsic point of reward entirely. Rewards work on a pathway in the brain that generates a substance called dopamine. Dopamine is a feel good chemical that says to us, “job well done, pat on the back, good stuff!” If something nice happens, in lay terms, we experience something pleasant, then dopamine kicks in and the message that is received is pleasurable. The longer term affect is a memory that doing x leads to this pleasurable sensation (the response from the reward) and so we continue to behave in a way that feeds the need for these feelings. Now dopamine does a lot of other things as well but for the purpose of this blogpost we are just concentrating on its action in this regard.
So a child works hard, does well, say they get that A*, and the parent hands over £50. The child feels happy. The parent hopes (subconsciously) now next year maybe they will remember that happy feeling and the fact I just gave them £50 and work just as hard and get another A*. The child also feels that their parent is very pleased with them and so they head off into the school year with good intentions. But this new year isn’t the same! For various reasons (many of which are good sound reasons) they get a B at the end of that year. They’ve still done their best but the A* has alluded them. The parent might know they’ve done their best but the promise made was £50 for an A*. The dilemma is apparent. The message given (maybe subconsciously) is a) one of failure (remember though this child has done their best b) Mum and Dad aren’t going to be happy with this (it’s not what you say as a parent often it’s what you do) c) I’m not good enough (A*’s are rewarded in our house)
However, what if when a child did their best the parent used phrases such as “Wow, fantastic. How do you feel?” challenging the child to think about exactly what sensations they were experiencing when they are achieved their potential. Right from quite an early age, children are able to understand when they feel happy or sad. Not only does this method connect the child to their emotions and help them to build emotional intelligence it also helps them to satisfy the needs we all have for those feelings of “job well done”, ie satisfaction and accomplishment. It doesn’t mean that a child can’t be rewarded extrinsically with a treat but more so that the first port of call for reward is an intrinsic ability to feel good just for the sake of feeling good without anyone or anything else. Those feelings are just as powerful as motivators as any externally purchased treat if not more so and they also have longevity that lasts way beyond childhood and adolescence.
Therefore in considering rewards and rewarding our children for the things that they do, the call goes out there to make the first port of call, wholesome, worthy praise that is heartfelt and real but most importantly feeds the child intrinsically and inherently so that they build up their own pathways of self-esteem and self-love to want to move onwards themselves for their own reasons to achieve their own ends. Ultimately out of that sense of self, altruism will take on a whole new meaning that will have more purpose and selflessness too.