The Mechanics of Rewards

It’s the holiday season and gifts will be given. How many parents use this occasion to control their children? How many parents will say things like Jordan, if you get an A in science, Santa will bring you that iPod you want? It seems normal to most. In fact, it is so common that its effectiveness is rarely questioned. Parents use money to entice their children to do chores, offer desserts to bribe them to eat their vegetables, give video game time to reward for done homework. In every classroom, in every school, teachers use elaborate systems of student control involving rewards gold stars, free-time privileges, preferential seating, and treats of all kinds. Parents and teachers alike also use praise in all forms: “Your biology presentation looks so neat”, “I am going to tell Daddy how obedient you were today”, “You cleaned up your room! You are a good girl.”

Because rewards are used so routinely with children, one might assume that it must be an effective method of getting children to do what adults want them to do. But is it effective?

Dr. Gordon argues that it is not. The fact that rewards are used so often and yet so unsuccessfully by so many parents and teachers proves they don’t work very well. Otherwise how can we account for the universal problem of poor discipline in our classrooms, and the fact that most parents feel so impotent in dealing with the misbehavior of their children? It seems that neither parents nor teachers are very successful with their various reward systems. There are many reasons why this is the case.

Scientists and learning specialists have proven that rewards won’t work unless they are administered immediately after the desired behavior occurs. Behavioral engineers also have to follow a systematic schedule of dispensing the rewards every time for the first occurrence of the desired behavior and then intermittently for future occurrences. In addition, all research has shown that the rewards must carefully be chosen to satisfy some felt need of the controllee. And, to make things more complicated, the controllers must make certain they are not inadvertently rewarding some undesirable behavior, as for example, when a child who is acting up in the classroom gets the teacher’s attention (rewarding to the child).

The ineffectiveness of using rewards to control children is due in part to the fact that the method requires such a high level of technical competence on the part of the controller, something hardly achievable by most parents. Let’s say this wouldn’t be such a huge hurdle and the child exposing undesirable behavior is in the hands of the best-trained behavior-modification expert it still, even under ideal experiment conditions, will take a great deal of time to just change one simple behavior, several months being the norm. So, this science of using rewards requires very complex technology and time-consuming logistics to produce results, something that is not manageable in most homes and classrooms.

Yes, experts have achieved unquestionable success with this method in teaching mentally disabled children to walk instead of crawl, to have autistic children learn to keep their glasses on, or schizophrenic children to begin talking, etc. But doesn’t it seem absurd to expect parents and teachers to be equally effective with such a complex, specialized, and time-consuming technique? How could parents ever find the time to use this method with the multitude of other desirable behaviors every parent would like to see, such as, cleaning up messes, going to bed on time, not hitting the baby brother, eating meals with the family, brushing teeth, getting up in time for school, calling the parents to let them know where he or she is, doing homework and so on? Or, can you imagine a teacher having to depend on this complex method that takes an inordinate amount of time to modify the behaviors of twenty kids in the classroom?

In Parent Effectiveness Training, we teach to not use rewards because Dr. Gordon didn’t consider this method to be of any practical use for parents (and teachers). We instead teach tools that promote self-control and help parents to influence their children instead of controlling them.