Reflections on the various dimensions of feminine vocation from liturgical homemaking and child rearing to education and the spiritual life.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Prizes, Praises, Gifts, and Inherent Rewards

Today my daughter was a bit tired with her school work and was having trouble staying focused and motivated. She asked me if I would please start giving her prizes ("like maybe stickers or something") for doing a good job with her assignments.

"Hmm. I'll have to think about that, Katherine," I told her.

I understand that staying focused on penmanship and spelling seat work can be very difficult, especially when you're only five years old, and I understand that, at any age, it helps to reward and motivate ourselves along the way as we take small steps toward a larger goal. At the same time, I really don't want to give the message that my children's behavior earns them petty prizes. I don't want Katherine to do "a good job" in order to get some unrelated trinket; I want her to see that working hard is it's own reward and has inherent benefits.

Although well-intentioned, the instructors Katherine has interacted with in community classes over the years have perpetuated this idea in her mind that she should perform in order to receive evaluative praise ("good job!") and prizes such as hand stamps and stickers ("because you did such a good job today!"). The fact that, at the tender age of five, Katherine already associates her performance with behavioristic evaluations and prizes saddens me, even if it does not surprise me. I slip into this kind of evaluation and behaviorism, too, even though I loathe it in principle.

I run out of attention and energy and find myself blurting out assessments such as "Nice work, Katherine!" when what I really mean is "I am happy for you! I'm glad you accomplished what you were trying to do!" or "Thank you for doing what I asked you to do. I really like it when you obey right away/help me out/are kind to your brother/work diligently at your school work/etc."

Although we all mean well when we say "Good job!" or "Nice work!", at the end of the day, we're giving an evaluation, and, even though it's positive, it's still an assessment, a judgement, a "you statement" at the core. We are communicating the message that our children need us to tell them whether or not their performance measures up. And we are, in the same way, habituating them to distrust their own ability to assess their performance and to rely instead on other people for their self-worth and self-image. We are talking over their own intuitive knowledge and drowning out the still, small voice of God within them, as if they could not hear him except through us.

Of course God does call parents to communicate his truth to their children, but I am not talking here about passing on the history of salvation, the doctrines of the creeds, moral principals, or other timeless truths. I also do not mean to imply that we should withhold our warmth, love, acceptance, or affection from our children. I am calling attention to the times when we evaluate our children's performance instead of teaching them to listen to God's Spirit in their hearts and to act out of awareness of and love for God and others.

When we use "I statements," instead of evaluations, however, we communicate information to our children that they don't already have within them, information that can help them become more compassionate and relational and can equip them to make loving choices. We share our feelings, our values, and our preferences: "I am so happy to see you and your brother working together as a team." "It's important to me to have a tidy home." "I like it when you help me set the table." We express our gratitude: "Thank you so much for helping me with the laundry! I really appreciate it!"

While I empathized with Katherine's desire and told her that I do love to give her fun things like stickers, I made a distinction between gifts and rewards. I told her that I give her things like stickers or treats for fun and just because I love her; she doesn't have to do anything to get those kind of things from me because they are gifts. Then I asked her why we work hard to learn our spelling and penmanship, even when we feel tired or bored. We talked about how awesome it will be when she can pick up any book in the library and read it all by herself, when she can write letters to friends and write down whatever she wants to say all by herself. Reading and writing are the inherent rewards of learning spelling words and penmanship. We talked about how it takes a lot of hard work over a lot of days and weeks to get there, but how worth it it all will be. Then I thanked her for working hard and told her I love her.

So, today's most important homeschool lesson turned out to be less about why we don't spell "was" as "wuz," and more about why we keep at our work even when it's difficult: We do it for the long-term, inherent rewards. We get fun stuff, too, but not because of our performance. And most importantly, we are loved all the time and that, thank God, has nothing to do with anything we do.

For more insight into how evaluative praise effects children, see Po Bronson's 2007 article in New York Magazine, "How Not to Talk to Your Kids: the Inverse Power of Praise."



  1. This is good, Jen. A long time ago, someone came to MOPS and had similar things to say about over-praising our kids. But I slip into it easily, so thank you for the reminder! :)

  2. I understand that children are overpraised for meaningless things, but it strikes me that communicating to one's children a 'job well done' only through terms of " I like it when..." has the potential of communicating to the child that the only thing that matters is whether or not mommy or daddy like something. Couldn't that introduce the problem of a child working completely for their parents approval?

    I remember reading something along the terms of this several years ago and that person's point was not to cease saying 'good job' altogether but to reserve it for moments of virtue. Yes, you DO NOT say 'good job' when your kid scribbled all over a piece of paper, but you DO say 'good job' when your kids accomplishes something that was difficult and clearly virtuous (like doing school without complaining).

    My instinct with most things (as you know) is to try to find a point of moderation! I think that complementing acts of virtue is 'good' because you are telling a child that, "Yes, that WAS good when they actually did something intrinsically good!" I think that is communicating truth and not flattery, which I think is where excess praise can tend to veer off the path of truth.

  3. Thanks for the feeback, Hope and Kelly!

    Kelly, I always appreciate your commitment to moderation. I also agree that we should explicitly teach our children what is virtuous and what isn't and call attention to those times when they exhibit virtue. Like you, I don't think they should have to guess or discover these principles for themselves without any guidance. And I don't want to leave them without substantive parental feedback.

    Personally, the phrase "Good job!" just doesn't feel right to me most of the time, but I find other ways to warmly communicate my affirmation both of their behavior of of their ability to assess when they are behaving virtuously and when they are not. I suppose we moms each have to find the expressions that fit us and our children and feel authentic and right.