Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Treating Kids Like Pets

When teachers or parents make success, rewards, gifts, excellence, treats, fun, grades or opportunities artificially scarce, we alienate and marginalize the very children who need us the most.

When teachers and parents treat kids like pets by bribing and threatening them in an attempt to garnish control, children start to see the adults in their lives less as safe and caring allies and more like judges in-waiting. In other words, kids learn that it is in their best interest to keep their distance from these adults.

Manipulation that is driven by bribes and threats is built on a foundation of conditional acceptance; that is, one person uses power over another to garnish compliance. All relationships are eroded by such treatment. That means the adult-child relationship is poisoned as much as the relationship between one child and another.

Want proof?

Did you see how the red-headed child looked at the adult? We probably can all imagine how little the child thinks of the ice-cream man, but did you see how that same boy looked at the new boy? If looks could kill...

Behavior systems based on rewards and punishment pit children against their peers as much as they pit children against adults. In an age when we should truly understand that good teaching and good learning are inseparable from good relationships, far too many teachers and parents are willing to sacrifice their long-term goals in favor of short-term compliance.

What's more, we should all understand how a classroom built upon collaboration and cooperation is infinitely more productive than one built on competition. Alfie Kohn explains:

The central message of all competition is that other people are potential obstacles to one's own success. Competition creates envy for winners, contempt for losers, and hostility and suspicion toward just about everyone. Not only is it irrational to help someone whose success might require your failure, but competition creates a climate in which such help is unlikely to occur in any case. Researchers have found that competitive structures reduce generosity, empathy, sensitivity to others' needs, accuracy of communication, and trust. These results follow naturally and logically from competition itself; the problem does not rest with the individuals involved and the way they approach a contest. Moreover, contests between teams teach that the only reason to work with others is to defeat another group of people who are working together. Cooperation becomes the means; victory is the end.
Bribes, threats, rewards and punishments are built on manipulation, and manipulation is built on mistrust. If we are to truly believe in our children and their pursuit of life long learning, we have aspire to something better than this.


  1. I have to participate in a point system reward deal at my school. It's one of the rare things that the school gets wrong (thankfully, they do not bribe kids to read). So, if they show up, they get all their points. I rig the system. They know this upfront.

    How does my class behave? Really well.

    Do they take advantage of this? Not at all.

    Are there ever behavior problems? Yeah. When it happens, I talk to them quietly outside for a minute and ask them what's going on. No referrals. No timeouts. No points taken away.

    Our entire class went on the reward trip on Friday. Again, how did the "trouble makers" act? They were the best behaved. For four of the boys, it was the first time they had ever been allowed to go on a field trip.

  2. Taking away trips from the trouble makers. I have seen that done so often! Yes they are often well behaved during this trip. Usually this is because they are finally in a learning environment that is authentic and meets their needs. Frequently they return from the trip restored and focussed until the incompatible environment of the classroom grinds them down.

    I am all about intrinsic rewards for learning. I refuse to introduce other rewards or punishments. Inevitably, one student's behaviour can influence the classroom and learning of the entire group. These disruptions create group consequences, but they should never be formalized into a system by teachers and students.

    Compliance is a necessary part of connected learning. Social arrangements or grouping in confined spaces necessitates that. I don't think we should be compelled to democratize all decision-making about norms either. The most important norms of relationship are learned long before schooling. As long as we are open to critical reflection on our habits, I think we can be comfortable with them. Good stuff Joe, I appreciate the many directions of your writing.

  3. I am a preservice teacher and am finding it hard to break through this thinking when I am so new to it myself. Can I further learn from you? All of this is so important to acknowledge as we are constantly creating bigger problems by not questioning cultural norms.
    Thanks for this Candice
    P.S. Is it alright if I place this blog in as a further understanding for a lecturer within the attachment section of my assessment piece?

  4. " but did you see how that same boy looked at the new boy? If looks could kill..."

    He seemed to be more dissapointed and sad more than anything, not mad or angry at the kid.