Book Discussion: Punished by Rewards (Part 3 - The Alternatives)

February 3, 2012 4:40 pm

51EJGHFCM5L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_In Part 1 I discussed Kohn's argument for rewards/punishments creating self-centered individuals and how urging a focus on rewards/punishments can have unintended consequences by encouraging short-cutting the desired behavior in order to satisfy the requirements of receiving the reward or avoiding the punishment.

In Part 2 I discussed motivation and the interaction between it and rewards/punishments.

Here, in Part 3, I will go over Kohn's suggested alternatives to rewards and punishments.


If you have now bought in to the idea that rewards and punishments are not only ineffective but counter-productive, long term, (and even if you haven't) then you likely want to know what Kohn suggests as an alternative.

He starts with an important question, "What is your goal?"  If your goal is to simply elicit compliance with your demands then there may not be an alternative to rewards and punishment and you probably don't need one.  So the first question is, do you want blind obedience or internalization of principles?  Back in part 1 I asked you to consider the question of what is is you want your employee/student/child to achieve.  This is where it really matters.

When parents are asked what kind of people they want their children to become they usually respond with things along the lines of: caring, responsible, hard working, self reliant, upstanding, principled, etc.  Unfortunately, with the possible exception of "hard working," rewards/punishments will help develop none of these qualities.

Rewards and punishments make an appeal to authority and self-interest for why we should behave certain ways.  You do this because someone in authority says so and if you don't that person will make your life unpleasant.  You do that because someone in authority says so and if you do that person will make your life more pleasant.  It's condescending.  But it does encourage unquestioning obedience to power.  It reinforces the idea that "might equals right."  But we can pretty much all agree that it is a flawed sentiment.  It is not inherently correct to obey someone because they have more power than you do.

They also contribute to the idea that it's OK to manipulate the people around you to get what you want.  Is that not exactly what is happening when a parent bribes a child to pick up their toys?  Is that not exactly what is happening when a teacher promises a class party if everyone gets an A on the test?  And is that not exactly what is happening when an employer promises bonuses to (or threatens firing) employees based on their performance?

Just think how disturbing it would be to witness a husband tell his wife, "If you have all the floors clean when I come home I'll bring you some flowers."  So why do we think it's fundamentally different when we turn around and say to a child, "If you pick up all your toys I'll give you some ice-cream."?  It seems clear that the lesson is that manipulation is not only acceptable, but desirable.

The Alternatives

One piece of the alternative solution is to appeal to reason and empathy in our behavioral guidance (in so far as the situation permits).  "Because I said so" is one of the most useless phrases of parenting and almost universally breeds resentment.  It directly says that there isn't any meaningful reason to take this action other than I want you to and I'm in charge so you have to do as I say.  It comes with no influencing power except the threat of punishment for non-compliance.

Instead of threats or bribes, Kohn suggests explaining the reasoning behind a request.  A calm reasoned approach to help a person understand why they should do something.  As a manager telling your employees they'll be working late tonight is disrespectful.  Explaining to them that such-and-such needs to be done before tomorrow morning, and that you realize it's unpleasant to stay late, is less likely to result in disgruntled resentment (though it probably still won't make anyone happy).

Explaining to a student the utility of learning calculus is more effective (at least it was for me) than just saying it's part of the curriculum.  This idea really resonated with me because I always found a subject more interesting if I could see useful applications of it within my life.  Understanding that calculus was invented in order to accurately describe physics made it more interesting (especially when applied to specific problems).  Doing contrived problem set after contrived problem set of multi-variable equations while in college was not interesting.

Now, I'm sure every parent is going scoff at the idea of calmly explaining to your toddler why drawing on the wall with poop is unacceptable.  But what are they learning if you punish them?  They might learn that drawing on the wall with poop is unacceptable, they might learn that they need to be more careful not to get caught, or they might learn that you're mean and bully people around.  You don't get to control what they learn from the punishment.  So is trying to explain really such a horrible thing?

For those wondering, yes, Alfie Kohn does have children.  He freely admits that it is hard to use his recommended approach.  It requires a lot of patience.  It is much less effort to simply bribe or threaten, but the research still stands that the long-term consequences will be negative.

"Working with" Rather than "Doing to"

One of Kohn's themes is the idea of approaching children with an attitude of "working with" rather than "doing to."  He suggests that at some point our relationship with our children needs to change from doing things to them to doing things with them (or working with them to solve problems).  When you have an infant you take them on a walk.  As they grow our mindset should change to going on a walk with them.  This is the fundamental shift behind the idea of working with rather than doing to.

To acknowledge that at some point the child is becoming an individual with their own ideas, emotions, and desires is to realize that doing things "to" them can be as disrespectful as doing things "to" another adult.  He suggests we can apply the three C's to help with this process: Content, Collaboration, Choice.  And I'll keep this brief, since we're running quite long now.


Kohn suggests we should reevaluate our requests.  Does what we're asking make sense?  Is it reasonable?  Is there a good reason behind it or is it solely for our convenience?  Is it fair to demand compliance solely for our own convenience?


Kohn suggests that when a child makes a mistake we should try to work with them to find a way to make the situation right rather than punish.  Instead of bribing them to do what we want we should try to work with them to get the task done (in so far as the task permits).  With this approach a child is more likely to learn that they can come to you for help fixing something when they make a mistake instead of trying to hide from you to avoid punishment.  They can learn that you are there to help and not to bully.


This should be the opportunity for children to make real choices in their life.  This is not the idea of choices where we use the words "you chose" as a lead up to a punishment ("You chose to color on the wall, so you chose to go to your room.").  It is also not the idea of choices where we offer a couple of acceptable options so that we get what we want no matter the "choice."  This can even mean allowing children to make bad choices (when the results will hopefully present a learning scenario and not lead to permanent damage).

This is the process of letting children become autonomous.  In order to learn how to live their own life they need to be given the opportunity to make choices.  A lack of this opportunity sometimes manifests itself in complete disaster then the child finally leaves home to live their own life.  A sudden requirement of making choices can be disastrous to someone who hasn't had the opportunity to do so in an environment where it is easy to recover from bad choices.

Developing a self-awareness and autonomy can help children develop and uphold ethical and moral principles.  When they've been taught that they can and should think for themselves they'll be much more likely to stand up for the things they think and believe when challenged.  They'll also be less likely to accept outside influences because they will have learned the value of their own autonomy.

Final Thoughts

Due to length I've ignored most of the business applications that Kohn discusses.  They're also very interesting and Kohn dives into them fully in the book.

If you can't tell, I found the book very interesting, but I've done a weak and short job of presenting Kohn's ideas here.  If you found them intriguing I highly recommend you pick up the book and read through it yourself.  I hope to be able to apply Kohn's suggestions in my life.  I think it represents a better way of dealing with people, including children.  I don't want to control or manipulate my children because I hate being controlled and manipulated.  I do want to help them grow into responsible, caring, self-aware, principled adults.  And I realize it will be difficult to do so.

7 thoughts on “Book Discussion: Punished by Rewards (Part 3 - The Alternatives)”

  1. Make sure you save this post to review in about 13 years. At a parenting lecture I attended once, the speaker said that "because I said so" was absolutely a good reason because never in the history of time after you have explained all the reasons why you think doing xyz is a horrible idea has the teenager then responded with "I see your point now. Nevermind" They will just argue ad infinitum to get their way so you might as well just go straight to "because I said so." (especially since they know perfectly well before they even ask why you are saying no) Not saying parents should be dictators but I guarantee all this advice is easier to take now then it will be when Heather is actively defying you (as hard as it is to believe now that that will ever happen.)

    However, in fairness to you, you were never a defiant, argumentative child so if your kids are all like you maybe you will never have to play the "because I said so" card.

  2. Well, I think explaining the reasoning is still important even if it then ends in, "We've been over the reasoning, the answer is, 'No', and it won't be discussed further." Which would seem to be a lot less resentment-building than simply jumping straight to, "I said so." Or at the very least perhaps some small part of the reasoning gets through and, while they're still mad, maybe it won't feel completely arbitrary and dictatorial (though they'll still act like it).

    Few things annoy me more than a demand that feels arbitrary and dictatorial (usually because it is given without explanation). But, I'm aware that other people don't seem to mind being told to do things with no explanation.

  3. I must say, this book scares me. I read it, and what is so scary is that is sounds good in theory but I think it is often detrimental in practice. Just be careful. You only get to raise a kid once, and you can't waste one attempting to apply some theory like this that sounds good, but is really not. Even Obama sounds logical most of the time with plenty of "facts" / "studies" to back him up. I am not saying he doesn't have some reasonable ideas - i.e. respect for your children is very warranted, and they should be treated kindly, .... Nor am I saying that it is not a thought provoking read. However, not praising your children - that is a very dangerous concept. The more I read of the book the more I thought, "Alfie Kohn does not have children does he?" And, I will bet you he doesn't, and never has - and probably for the better. He is like a college professor with no real world experience. My recommendation - Parenting with Love and Logic.

  4. OK...I don't know who you are, but all of Kohn's anti-reward/punishment is backed up with dozens of repeated studies. You provide no evidence as to why he's wrong (except that you think so). Why is not praising a child a dangerous concept? The popular opinion not too long ago was that if you didn't beat your children with a switch that they'd be spoiled. So popular opinion should hold little sway on what actually helps children develop well.

    Also, what's your goal when you provide praise? Kohn explicitly addresses the use of praise and doesn't suggest withholding feedback from your children, but to rather focus more on specific, meaningful feedback rather than general "You're so good at that!" He also suggests interacting with the child to help them explore their interest in the task so as not to replace their interest in the task with their desire to please you.

    You apparently didn't read my posts very thoroughly either as I explicitly point out that Alfie Kohn _does_ have at least one child. His daughter, Abigail, was born October 1995 (I can't find any information regarding other children, if any).

    Then there's your swipe at Obama. You say, "Even Obama," as though he's obviously just wrong about everything and that the mere idea of using "studies" to support public policy is ridiculous. While I have plenty of issues with his policies, attacking someone for supporting their positions with facts, evidence, and studies is absurd. (Not that politicians haven't been known to cherry pick information or lack sources, but attacking the idea of using evidence is the problem.)

  5. You are right, it is just my opinion, I didn't read your posts very carefully, and I am sorry I posted. When I read the book it just made me scared to praise my kids. I did not get that he was only proposing specific rather than general praise - which I do agree with. I was just saying that sometimes studies and facts can be twisted to sound pretty good - they are not always what they seem to be. I did not say that to use studies or facts means you are always wrong - that is absurd - obviously. I was just giving an example of how sometimes studies and facts can be wrong. I guess I broke the cardinal sin of using an example from politics or religion. Anyway, I have no desire to defend my position. I just thought it would be help to suggest a parenting pattern that has helped me. Obviously that was not helpful. So I am out. My apologies. Have a nice life.

  6. Well, I know I was going away, but your blog made me think maybe I was missing something, or had just not read carefully enough, or had forgotten, since it has been 4-5 years since I read Punished by Rewards, and that maybe I should go back and review. I recall reading the book, and thinking Kohn had broken the cardinal rule that my Dad laid out for me when I left my home - "NEVER tear down anyone's belief unless you can replace it with something better." I felt like Kohn had done a remarkable job of tearing down the traditional parenting techniques, but that his suggestions of what to do as a parent were wholly underwhelming. Like I said, this was 4-5 years ago (and when things get long or start saying the same thing over in a different way, I tend to skim), so don't slaughter me for this, but, if I recall, in tearing down "traditional" parenting techniques he was very specific; in offering techniques for becoming a "working with" parent he was rather general - which he later defends - saying that it is difficult to give a step by step guide to this type of parenting - it requires a little more work and thoughtfulness. Or, maybe he left it a little light so as to warrant another book. Anyway, I found another of his books over the weekend, "Unconditional Parenting, Moving from Rewards and Punishment to Love and Reason", that sounded better to me than reviewing "Punished by Rewards". I picked up a DVD of a lecture he gave at Stanford surrounding the Unconditional Parenting book, and he gives 10 specific ways to become a "working with" parent, which whether you subscribe to his theory of punished by rewards or not, are very valuable and applicable ideas, in my opinion. Here they are in very abbreviated form, as I thought you might find them helpful.

    1. Reconsider your requests
    2. Put the relationship first
    3. Unconditional love
    4. Look at the world from their point of view
    5. Be authentic
    6. Talk less, ask more
    7. Don't assume the worst
    8. Try to say yes when you can
    9. Don't be rigid
    10. Let kids decide whenever possible

    Also, while it is a mute point, and clearly does not in and of itself discredit Kohn's theories, since you shredded me on it, I thought you might be interested to note that Punished by Rewards was first published in 1993, _before_ Kohn had any children. I think there was another publication of the book in 1999. Maybe he incorporated some of his applied learnings in that publication when his oldest child, Abigail, was 3 or 4 - maybe not. Anyway, as I mentioned, sometimes things are not as they appear. But that said, clearly he has a lot of studies to back him up.

    Ok, I am really out. Now go and have a nice life.

    Your Mom (j/k)

  7. Yes, I have the 1999 re-print in which he includes an afterword updating his ideas. In the afterword he discusses his experiences raising his daughter (up to that point, of course) and says that there's nothing he'd change about his approach. However, he does admit that it is incredibly difficult to follow at times.

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