Rewards and Vacuous Praise

I was nine when I learned that kindness could be commodified. Kindness, caring, and compassion were acts you put on only when there were people to witness them. I grew up agnostic, so naturally this excluded God. 

The world was too complicated and too chaotic for me to decipher on my own, so I looked to my teachers to show me the way. Mr. Rookley taught fourth grade in a portable and kept a large tub of Dubble Bubble gum on his desk. The gum was our currency for success, and Mr. Rookley the arbiter.

Stock values plummeted in the days following the discovery of the great Dubble Bubble Gum Heist of 2000. It was almost too easy. A five finger discount at a minimum security vault for a cheap shot of adrenaline. A crime that could be replicated so long as supply was adequate to sustain it. 

It was clear to poor Mr. Rookley that something had gone awry with the bubblegum-as-motivation tactic. The grasp Dubble Bubble had on our collective class consciousness was ephemeral at best. Being a quiet and shy kid, my gum earnings hovered at a steady zero for most of the year. This suited me perfectly fine as I did not find gum to be all that enticing anyway. Besides, I had evolved beyond the need for physical prizes. 

Once gum distribution halted, we were left to seek validation in other ways. From that point on, our arbiter dealt only in a mystical form of praise known as Merit Points. 

The Merit Points System was more abstract and nuanced than the primitive Dubble Bubble system from which it evolved. It was an intangible system that, in theory, could not be exploited for personal gain. Points were difficult to earn and would only be awarded for “exceptionally good behaviour”. One would need an advanced degree in psychology to understand the subtleties of how these points were distributed. Behaviours that were rewarded in one situation were not necessarily done so in others. 

Megan, a scrawny redhead, stood stunned in the middle of the classroom with a small wrinkled wrapper in her hand as twenty-some-odd pairs of eyes fixated on her. Mr. Rookley, in his loud, booming voice made a proud announcement, “Megan picked up a piece of garbage from the floor that wasn’t hers — WITHOUT. BEING. TOLD. She has earned the first Merit Point.” He was beaming.

It seemed that the key lay somewhere along the lines of doing good deeds without prompt and being noticed for having done them… 

This time, there was no great heist to distract us. Like their bright pink, sugar-packed successors, the check marks that appeared next to our names soon lost their meaning too. Mr. Rookley was left to play the game alone while we sat as placeholders for the next batch of students. 

Lessons Learned

Providing extrinsic motivators in an attempt to cultivate intrinsic values such as kindness and compassion is the difference between acting kind and being a kind person. Too often we are trained to do the former.

Grades, stickers, praises, and money are all forms of rewards commonly used by parents and teachers. The dangers of such motivators are that they make us lose sight of what is truly important, especially when they get replicated on a larger scale.

There is no mechanism more apt to destroy a one’s inclination to care than this: competition and rewards. 

Children who are praised for intelligence over effort tend to give up more easily on tasks. According to Alfie Kohn, author on human behaviour, education, and parenting; the children of parents who frequently use rewards tend to be less generous than their peers.

Ditch the bubble gum. Forget the number on your bathroom scale or in your bank account. You can’t put a point value on worthiness. Give yourself permission to validate your own feelings, to experience success as you see fit. Only then can we as teachers help raise a child’s confidence, character, and self-esteem.

Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation are inversely related.

Additional Resources

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