“Few parents have the courage and independence to care more for their children’s happiness than for their success.” ~ Erich Fromm
“Here’s a bumper sticker I’d like to see: “We are the proud parents of a child who’s self-esteem is sufficient that he doesn’t need us promoting his minor scholastic achievements on the back of our car.”
~ George Carlin
In the 5 or so years that I have been a parent there have been a few people I have come in contact with whose philosophy about children spoke to me so completely that I instantly felt a bond. I have been so fortunate in my time as a blogger to have found an amazing group of like-minded people whose writings and teachings continuously open my eyes to better ways of being with children. Last week I went to a lecture given by Alfie Kohn titled “Pushed Too Hard: Parenting in an Achievement Crazy Culture” which not only opened my eyes, it blew my mind.
I’d heard of Alfie Kohn for a number of years which is not surprising given that he is the author of a dozen books and over 100 articles on human behavior, education and parenting. When the opportunity came up to hear his lecture, I jumped at it because I knew it was going to be something interesting. What I didn’t realize was how dynamic a speaker he was, how he would push me to re-think beliefs I had held as fact and how persuasive the arguments for his line of thinking would be. There is no way I can do his lecture justice here, but I do want to try and sum up a few of the brilliant points he made that evening.
The lecture began with the audience being asked what their long-term goals are for their children. The answers included self-reliant, creative, curious, compassionate, fulfilled, vital members of their community, happy in their own skin and so forth. You get the drift. Mr. Kohn made the observation that one thing all of these ideals had in common was that none of these descriptions had anything to do with what kind of learners our kids would be, but rather what kind of people they will become.
Our practices are at odds with what we want for our children.
Most parents and educators use some combination of rewards and praise in an effort to build self-esteem and encourage children to succeed. Mr. Kohn has written extensively on the subject of rewards and praise in numerous articles and books like Punished By Rewards and Unconditional Parenting. We want our children to be generous and kind, so we reward them when they behave that way. But studies show that these rewards actually have the reverse effect of what we want! From Alfie Kohn’s article 5 Reasons To Stop Saying “Good Job”:
“Very much like tangible rewards – or, for that matter, punishments – it’s a way of doing something to children to get them to comply with our wishes. It may be effective at producing this result (at least for a while), but it’s very different from working with kids – for example, by engaging them in conversation about what makes a classroom (or family) function smoothly, or how other people are affected by what we have done — or failed to do. The latter approach is not only more respectful but more likely to help kids become thoughtful people.”
Rewards and praise (and even punishments) teach children to behave in the desired way only when there is the possibility of being rewarded. It doesn’t teach them to connect to their inner sense of kindness and generosity and to simply be that way because they are intrinsically motivated to do so.
We want our students to work hard and do their best, so we test them and praise good performance. But research shows that, again, this only serves to motivate students to want to get good grades, not become the lifelong learners we all hope for! As I wrote last year about the ideas of intrinsic motivation and praise in a post about the groundbreaking book, NurtureShock:
“In other words, giving your children money for doing chores, extra computer time for doing well on a test or saying ‘good job’ whenever they put away their toys simply keeps them needing those “rewards” to be motivated. They have not learned to do things simply for the joy of just doing them”.
The more you reward people for doing something, the more they lose interest in doing it.
As parents (or educators, I would imagine), we may feel that we need to reinforce good behavior as if that good behavior is simply a fluke. But praise is ultimately a judgment. And since we know that no one likes to be judged, we can, instead of praising, use a phrase like “I noticed”:
- I noticed that you helped your friend when she fell down.
- I noticed that you gave half your lunch to your friend who forgot his.
- I noticed that you put a lot of effort into your science project.
But what about rewarding children for doing well in school?
The main way children are rewarded in school is by receiving grades for their work. Alfie Kohn makes the argument that grades in school actually do the opposite of what we would hope they do. The research shows that not only don’t grades motivate people, they actually do something much worse:
- Students actually find the task less interesting once grades are introduced. Thus, they are less likely to return to the subject on their own time (loss of intrinsic motivation) and many simply lose interest in the subject entirely.
- Assigning grades leads students to avoid risk. What does this mean? That our children will choose the easiest classes, the simplest book for a book report, study a foreign language they already know in order to get a better grade. Kids aren’t stupid, if adults tell them that grades are what is important, then they will find the best way to ensure they get the best grade.
- Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking. As Alfie Kohn writes, “They may skim books for what they’ll “need to know.” They’re less likely to wonder, say, “How can we be sure that’s true?” than to ask “Is this going to be on the test?”
Mr. Kohn pushed the point further last week and made the statement that the only thing worse than a reward is an award. That is, what contests do is to make our children view others as potential obstacles to success. How does this fit in with our desire to teach our children to be kind and compassionate? Can one be simultaneously competitive and altruistic?
For parents who grew up in families that were either very competitive or where achievement was paramount, the ideas that Mr. Kohn puts forth might seem really “out there”. Lest you dismiss him entirely, I urge you to actually read his articles like The Case Against Grades or Well, Duh! 10 Obvious Truths We Shouldn’t Be Ignoring. And, perhaps, consider his statement that he sees only 3 reasons why grades should be given:
- To satisfy parents
- It allows teachers to compel kids to do what the teachers want them to do.
- People are going to give your children grades later, so they might as well get used to it now.
None of those feel like very good reasons to me. And don’t even get him started on tests and homework. Suffice it to say that he quoted research that basically says that tests measure what matters least: how many forgettable facts you’ve crammed into short term memory. And homework? Research shows that it has no benefit for children until High School. Before then, Mr. Kohn just sees it as requiring our children to do a “second shift” after 7 hours of school.
Still, it takes courage to do right by kids in an era when the quantitative matters more than the qualitative, when meeting (someone else’s) standards counts for more than exploring ideas, and when anything “rigorous” is automatically assumed to be valuable. We have to be willing to challenge the conventional wisdom, which in this case means asking not how to improve grades but how to jettison them once and for all. ~ Alfie Kohn
Some of you may be thinking, “Well, I was graded from Kindergarten through Law School, had loads of homework every night, played competitive sports and I turned out just fine”. But, as my friend, Wendy said on my Facebook page yesterday, did you turn out fine BECAUSE of all of that? Or in spite of it?
Just something to think about.
I know this may be controversial to some. It also may be frustrating, especially if your local school is more traditional in nature and you don’t have a choice as to where to send your child. But if any of this strikes you as making some sense then I urge you to investigate further and find a way to make some changes for the sake of your children. And, as always, I’d love to know your thoughts about all of this. Leave your comments below!