Andy Palmer: Don’t reward your kids (for the best of reasons)

Posted on May 22, 2015

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Two weeks ago, I accompanied my son William, with my parents and friends, to the British Film Institute to see the very first screening of Dreaming of Peggy Lee, a short independent film that William, landed a lead role in.

I had seen the film already but my heart began beat a little quicker as the lights dimmed in the cinema and I realised that I was about to see my son on the big screen in a film (albeit a short one).

I sat at the end of the row in the small cinema and angled myself so I could easily see his reactions in the reflected light of the big screen. Will enjoyed the film and as soon as the credits rolled and the lights were back on, Grandad was on his way from his seat a bit further back to the front to congratulate his grandson. William took the applause and I hope I’ll never forget how good it felt to witness a moment so special.

In the bar afterwards, I was asked if I was proud of what William had done. ‘I bet you’re really proud’ people would say; and I am really proud but the truth is that I was no more proud of him on Tuesday night than I am any night of the week. I’m not more proud of him because of what happened.

What changed was how happy I was for him … and I was very happy because he’d achieved something that he set out to do and in the opinion of people I respect, done it well.

We’re in the same team – we form the same troop so no matter what the outcome of the film – I love him unconditionally. Win or lose. Good film or bad. I would be proud of him anyway and I think most parents could agree they’d be the same.

How happy we are naturally goes up and down depending on what’s going on but the pride or love I have stays exactly the same.

Parental feelings of pride in children, based on their achievements, has been at the heart of my beliefs about parenting ever since William was in reception class.

After picking my son up from school one afternoon there was an unexpected but pivotal moment in my journey as a parent. A moment that bought about a paradigm shift in my views on how to raise my son.

I bought William a toy because his teacher told me that he had done well. I remember passing the toy to him and I explained why he had been bought it.

‘I got you this special Spiderman toy because Miss Trigg said you’d been really good’ I said.

I noticed a hollow feeling in develop in my stomach; I realised that I was lying to my son.

I was not giving him a toy because of how well he did in class. I was giving him a toy because I loved him.

He knew he’d done well in school and the feeling of making progress was reward enough. He felt good anyway. In fact, by seeking to replace or compete with those natural and powerful feelings of achievement with material gifts, I could damage his naturally occurring source of motivation; his human spirit.

I thought about it some more and researched parenting strategies; I found I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.

Rewards, either emotional or economic, and temporary uplifts in appreciation and pride would have little part to play in our father-son relationship. The same goes for their opposite numbers; the naughty step, docking pocket money or removing toys.

Why? Because humans, even children, possess reason and can be taught right from wrong through explanation, not through arbitrary increases or decreases in love or the manifestations of it. For example; giving money for goals or taking X-Box games away. We give our children things because we love them – what do we say when we take them back?

Children aren’t laboratory monkeys to be conditioned to demonstrate a behaviour and then collect a peanut as a reward. Sure, the peanuts get you what you want in the short term – but the monkey never gets the point of the exercise and without peanuts, the motivation disappears. Natural, intrinsic motivation isn’t cultivated through the joy of achievement when extrinsic rewards are meted out.

Rewards for achievement and then taking things away as a punishment could have profoundly negative consequences for the social development of children.

What happens when we reward children based on a behavior, like scoring a goal or doing well in a test, is say: ‘I value you more when you achieve something I approve of and I value you less when you fail’.

‘I love you even less when you’re bad, I will banish you to the naughty step or I will take away toys I gave you when I loved you.’

That economic transactional view of parenting just conditions children to think that it is acceptable to base behaviour on other people’s approval or disapproval rather than to think for themselves and just do what’s right. It also teaches that love is not something consistent and reliable but is merely a tool to be applied or withdrawn at will.

We know we don’t want young people to do whatever other kids tell them to do just because they want to be liked; so why treat them that way to keep their behaviour in line? We also don’t want our kids to be locked into permanent up-and-down relationship cycles when they get older.

I settled on the view that the best way for children to understand rights and wrongs is through having a good grasp of a language and for parents to use it to its full extent. Spoken or signed. There is no need to ban them from the Wii or pay them for goals. All you need is time, love and a language, spoken or signed, to explain how the world works.

Andy Palmer is the hearing father of a Deaf son, and is also a child of Deaf parents. He is Managing Director of the Cambridgeshire Deaf Association, runs Peterborough United’s deaf football teams and is Chairman of the Peterborough and District Deaf Children’s Society and teaches sign language in primary schools. Contact him on twitter @LC_AndyP

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