The Idea of Rewards

After discussing controller’s behavior and where the power controllers use stems from, we are now going to look at how rewards are supposed to work (and in the next issue we’ll do the same with punishments).

For rewards to work effectively three conditions must always be met:

  1. The controllee must want or need something strongly enough to submit to the controller’s control (to come up with the behavior the controller wants).
  2. The reward offered by the controller must be seen by the child as potentially satisfying some need.
  3. The controllee must be dependent on the controller to supply the reward (that is, the controllee is incapable or meeting the need by himself/herself).

Controllers have a choice of using rewards in one of two ways:

  1. They may promise the reward contingent on the child’s first doing what the controller wants (submitting to the control).
  2. They may wait until they observe the child engaging in the desired behavior, at which time they then administer the reward as an unexpected favorable consequence.

An example of controlling by promising a reward: you want your child to stop playing that video game and instead read a book from school, so you say, “if you stop play video games now and go read your school book I’ll make you your favorite lunch tomorrow.”

An example of controlling by rewarding after observing a desired behavior: A teacher wants a child to stop chit chatting with the children next to it, so when he observes the child being quiet and attentive the teacher smiles and says, “you are being such a good student today, being quit and paying attention.”

Exercising control over children by using rewards goes by a variety of names, including behavior modification, behavior shaping, operant conditioning, positive reinforcement, behavior engineering, behavior management (some terms, such as behavior modification or behavior management, can also refer to control through punishment). Whatever name is used, the basic method of control by rewards is to try to obtain some specific behavior by arranging that the consequences of the behavior are felt as positive or rewarding to the child. The principle is sound and quite well documented: behavior that is rewarded is repeated.

Rewarding sounds benevolent enough – after all, are not the consequences (or, technically speaking, the contingencies) felt by the controllee as desirable, pleasant, satisfying? And, obviously, the method can work, as proven by countless experiments with children in a wide variety of behavioral settings – schools, hospitals, and various child-care institutions.

So, what’s wrong with rewards? We’ll really get into this four/five newsletters down the road, but for now let’s just assume that this method of behavior modification has severe limitations and often fails to work. For now, it’s enough to stress that modifying and shaping children’s behavior by deliberately arranging for the consequences to be positive and rewarding is sound in principle – but not nearly as easy to make work as it appears. In fact, it usually requires a very complex and time-consuming series of prescribed steps to change just one discrete behavior, like hitting a sibling or refusing to go to bed. Moreover, it requires that the controller has a very high level of technical knowledge about the reward method and how to apply it consistently and correctly. Finally, control by reward brings out some bad side effects in children that most parents and teachers find distasteful. Because of all these problems, the method is hazardous and far from being dependable (as we’ll explore in detail in future editions of the Family Connection).