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What'll You Give Me?

Kids love stickers. Even my middle school students love stickers. I even kind of like stickers. I give them out to my middle schoolers occasionally because it is so fun watching them squeal and hearing each one say, “Where’s mine?” That being said, I hand out stickers for the same reason I give my own children hugs. It’s a tangible sign of “Hey, I notice you, and I appreciate you.” They don’t work well for motivation. I’m not sure at what age the transformation occurs. When does it go from a willingness to work for a sticker to an unwillingness to work for just about anything (unless intrinsically motivated)? To be effective, the rewards I would need to offer would require a constant flow with ever increasing payload, usually to the detriment of my pocketbook. Frankly, I use few tangible rewards in my classroom.

These observations dovetail into contemporary research on motivation. Alfie Kohn was one of the first to criticize the effectiveness of rewards. He showed instead that it works over the short term but does not change behavior over the long haul. More recently, Daniel H. Pink wrote about the limited effectiveness of monetary rewards to improve performance. He discusses a study conducted by prominent economists. The researchers paid participants in rural India to play various games that required physical as well as mental skills. They divided them into three levels of paid rewards. Those in the smallest and mid-size pay range performed the same. And the highest paid group? They performed worse than both the other groups. Tangible rewards simply don’t work the way we assume.

As a child, my mom would occasionally use rewards, but it usually backfired. I thought that if payment is a reward for an act, then the reverse is true. Don’t do it; don’t get paid. No remorse on my part. Needless to say, Mom seldom bothered. Instead chores were a part of being in a family.

And there’s the big key: family and relationships in general don’t work so well with a reward system. This idea had been rummaging around in my head for a while when I happened on a clinical psychologist’s article in The Atlantic earlier this week. According to Erica Reischer, “Whatever the system, reward economies promote a transactional model for good behavior: Children come to expect a reward for good behavior and are hesitant to ‘give it away for free.’ ” Tangible rewards create ‘tit for tat’ relationships. Reischer tells of one 8 year old boy who was asked to help his younger brother clean up a spill. The boy asked his mother, “What will you give me?”

Now, of course, at the end of the day, we all work for rewards. I go to work, so I can pay the bills. It’s also true that love and acceptance in a family is a type of reward, but that is a far cry from Skittles for good behavior or a sticker for cleaning the toilet. It’s also true that tangible reward systems work in limited settings. In fact, Reischer’s big complaint is that they work so well that you create kids who are always looking for payment. And if I’m trying to teach self-sacrifice, ‘turn the other cheek,’ and generosity to my children? I think I'll just keep giving those stickers out like hugs, no strings attached.


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