Thursday, November 5, 2009

Parenting Questions (Answers Sold Separately)

Here are a bunch of parenting questions I posted at Rational Jenn's excellent blog:
I have yet to delve fully into this issue but it seems there is a great need for objective definitions in [the field of parenting].

For example, what constitutes a reward? Does a smile and a high five, in response to a kid's achievement, constitute one? Or, using one of Kelly's examples, are good grades a reward?

What distinguishes a reward from an objective evaluation of the facts (or an act of justice) in the above cases? Does being a good parent demand that one pretend facts (or one's estimates of them) are other than they are? Put another way: is emotional neutrality with regards to children's choices and the consequences a virtue?

Are kids quick to exchange their parent's (or teacher's) values for their own? In certain areas--like food and games and schedules--it seems that this is not the case. But this seems to be the premise behind the strong need for caution.

What is "extrinsic motivation" and is it necessarily the same as "second-handed motivation"? How does the "extrinsic motivation" of giving a kid an allowance for their efforts at school differ from an adult getting a salary for their efforts at work?

As noted in the title, the answers are not included here. But feel free to post your own in the comment section!


  1. I think there's a lot of wooziness around these terms being bandied about. For me, the kicker was when Jenn indicated that a reward is a form of coercion.

  2. Agreed. I think viewing a "reward" as a "type of coercion" and "praise" as a "kind of manipulation" substitutes what is not essential for what is, obliterating crucial differences between the terms.

    However, especially in blog posts, only so much context can be provided. Perhaps what I see now as a "package deal," I'll later understand more clearly with added context.

  3. Hey guys! I don't know if you have read any of the comments, but we did discuss the need for a more specific definition of reward. It was unclear as I was using it in the post--but I'm talking about a Mom-imposed external reward in exchange for good behavior. (I have discussed the dangers of reward systems in past posts.)

    I'm planning a post on this soon, but I'm sure that you can agree that reward (and punishment) systems can be manipulative and could tend to put the child's focus on the reward (or avoidance of punishment) instead of doing the right thing for the right reasons.

    Essentially what I'm talking about is when parents substitute external motivations for desired (to the parent) behavior. There are better ways, I think, to encourage kids to do the right things, and I've provided many good examples of such on my blog in the past. As I said, I'll be drawing a (hopefully) clearer picture of what I mean in a future post.

    I'm trying very hard to clarify my parenting principles, and that post was a first attempt to put them into a cohesive structure. I'm sure that there is much I can improve, and so I appreciate this kind of discussion. :o) And thanks for understanding, Daniel, about the fact that blog posts are limited--even though that was a long post, I really cut quite a bit out in the interests of length! Scary, huh?

  4. I read the rest of the comments a couple times, including the post you linked to in them on kids and money.

    (I sided with your husband almost immediately in wanting to tie money to specific activities and then had to agree that the logistics for doing so would be mind-boggling, especially with three kids.)

    Anyway, I think it's easier to see that I cut a lot out of the above comment! Your post was really long, you put a lot of time into it, and so it's hardly right of me to expect a clearly defined definition of each term.

    I totally understand where you and Kelly are coming from up to a point and then the eyebrows go up and I want to ask a million questions 'cause I haven't thought a lot about this stuff yet, and have a ton of questions.

    Ok. Really have to go to bed now, but wanted to clarify my above comment if it came across the wrong way.

  5. I wish we were nearby so we could talk about all these millions questions. It would be so much fun, and I always clarify my own thoughts in any conversation with you. It would be useful.

  6. I am aware of what you were driving at by rewards being parent-imposed.

    I do not agree that reward and punishment systems are manipulative because I think you're conflating psychological manipulation with guidance or teaching. I am trying to get my children to not misbehave in the future by punishing them today, but I am also trying to teach them the proper way to behave. When you set it up as a straw man ("Bad boy! Be good!") when the reality is that it's more like correction plus reinforcement.

    To make this more concrete, let's say that my child is too loud in a restaurant. First step, gentle reminder: "Please be quieter in the restaurant." Unless it's a willful act after that, I give a firmer reminder: "You must be quieter while we're in the restaurant." At this point, the reminders stop because the rule is longstanding and the action must cease. I would then say, "If you cannot be quiet, then you will go sit out in the car until you can." At the next instance, it's car time. (If it's willful, then we'll skip the second reminder entirely.)

    For awhile, this means there is car time. The punishment is that he no longer gets to enjoy the meal or play with his sisters. The time spent out in the car is time to reflect on what he has done and to show that I enforce rules. Over time (generally fairly short in duration in my experience), the gentle reminders are sufficient.

    Have I manipulated my child into appropriate volumes in public places? Or should I have let "reality" impose its limits by allowing him to be as loud and rambunctious as he can be until he recognizes that the glares of the other patrons are for him or until a manager comes over to scold him? Or perhaps I could let "reality" impose its limits by telling him how I don't want to be around little boys who are too noisy and other people don't either and that little boys who are noisy need to go outside and be as noisy as they want until they get all their noisiness out?

    No, I have not done any manipulation. I have taught him a social rule and helped him to remember it through practice and correction. To my mind, I have taught him a rule that he will need to remember for the rest of his life. The other "reality" oriented methods (each of which I have seen espoused by parents) allow the child to enjoy his whims at will rather than learning the self-control that is necessary to be a functioning adult.

    As for the value of rewards, I think that they can be tremendously useful. I have used them myself in several limited instances. Adults use rewards in many respects and they're generally rational. We've all seen kids that respond only to rewards but I don't see that rewards are a slippery slope to slackerhood. Below is a comment that I prepared for your blog entry, Jenn, but decided against it because someone else said something sufficient for my purposes:

  7. Rewards are not any form of coercion. They can be manipulation, but I can think of many examples of rewards in real life that aren't manipulation and aren't irrational: bonuses, commissions, self-given (or even from one partner to another in a relationship) treats for sticking to goals, actual rewards for returning of lost property, rebates, and so on.

    Rewards aren't inherently behavioristic and needn't be manipulative in childhood either. I've paid my children to do special chores and I could just as easily told them to do it for free. It hasn't led to them not doing any task unless there's remuneration. With some children, it might and I'd be hesitant to apply any rewards with them.

    We used rewards with one child during potty training. It enticed her to sit on the toilet and try. I'm happy to report that she does not require M&Ms to go to the bathroom and hasn't for the several years since she got the hang of using the toilet.

    Dessert in our house is a reward for finishing one's dinner. (Or, conversely, it's withholding is a punishment for not finishing one's dinner. Same coin.) One girl eats whatever qualifies her for dessert; another eats whatever she wants and doesn't care if dessert is foregone or not; and the last girl eats whatever's on her plate--often asks for seconds--with dessert being incidental. Each eating style reflects the daughter's personality: sweet tooth, eats only sparingly, and enjoys eating. The reward gets sweet tooth to eat, means nothing to picky, and is a nice capper for the gourmand.

    If your child exhibits a susceptibility to depend on rewards, then don't use them or be judicious. Otherwise, it probably won't make any sort of difference.

  8. Hi Bill! I only have a few minutes, so I'll just address your example of being noisy in the restaurant. You described our exact procedure!

    We set a limit, and then we enforce it, which is the theme of that post as well as others. Why would we enforce this limit? Because loud children infringe on other's rights to eat in (relative) peace. Therefore, when the child is loud, we take him out. It is not a punishment--it is the enforcement of the limit. A punishment would be sitting him in Time Out when we got home or taking away a toy or hitting him. We do not do these things.

    I'm not at all sure where you get from my posts that I would allow a child to scream loudly at a restaurant and then let him experience the effects of the reality of that full-on. When other people's rights are being violated, or when the child himself is in danger of serious or semi-permanent harm, then the limit must be enforced--and so I do.

    I do not un-parent--I agree with you that that would result in whim-worshipping children (and a miserable existence for me).

  9. I did not get that approach from your posts. I may have read it from someone in some thread or comments or I may have concocted it as an example of the only way that reality is ever going to reproach a child in that situation.

  10. Daniel, I've arrived very late to this party, and the lights seem to be out. Maybe I can turn them back on for a bit.
    I see the definition of "reward" being "something given or received for specific, seemingly valuable action(s)." (I say "seemingly" because not all actions are objectively valuable, despite their givers thinking them valuable)
    Rewards can be good or bad depending upon the *intention* of the award-giver and the true *value* of the action(s) done. e.g. Giving candy to a child to stop the child from being a bully is a bad reward (a bribe). And giving rewards to the best concentration-camp murderers is obviously bad because it's not an objective value.
    Regarding people (including children), it is never valuable to offer reward incentives to influence thought and action, because it takes the emphasis off of cause and effect. More specifically, it removes the beneficiary from the beneficiary's action. One must do the right thing because it is right, it builds character, it builds self-esteem, it builds a sense of efficacy. One cannot do the right thing for chocolate or praise or a new car or a diamond ring. One does it because it is in accord with reality. Any reward afterward is just icing on the cake -- and a feeling that others of value connect with the feeling and act. (this is one thing that makes friendship so valuable)
    When parents dangle chocolate carrots in front of children, they reveal their skepticism that the children can do the right thing if guided properly, and the parents reveal their own doubt about being able to act rationally and guide their children rationally. When children are left to their own auspices, they know clearly the good feeling they get from doing right. I've seen it on my own child's face hundreds of times. She doesn't need a carrot, nor would she want one -- unless it comes from a person she respects with no ulterior motives.
    Are high-fives and praise and chocolate cakes rewards? Yes. And, depending on intent, they can be good or bad. If they are simply an acknowledgement of greatness (justice) with no overt or implied manipulation, then they are good; they are acts of justice; they are "one good deed, in turn, deserves another." Children have the highest-tech bullshit radar on planet Earth. They KNOW what the intent of the parent is. And yet many parents who use such instances of "acts of justice" for manipulation and end up pissing the children off and causing second-handedness eventually in the children.
    Bad parental rewards are not coercion (gotta be careful to keep that term where it belongs: initiation of force or fraud). But such rewards are acts of manipulation.
    BTW, emotional neutrality is never a good parental paradigm. Justice demands eternal vigilance and eternal satisfaction in the moment for all relationships, including children. I am never neutral about Livy's choices and, if necessary, I let her know my thoughts and feelings either way.

  11. Thanks for the comment, David, and especially for defining your terms. Unfortunately, I'll have to come back and comment on this later.

  12. Am busy working on some reviews but it's been a long time already so here's a response to David's thoughtful post:

    I agree that a general definition of reward should not assume a right or wrong view of what is valuable. Thus, my off-the-cuff definition of it would be "something given or received in response to or recompense for some action."

    I disagree with the view that a reward can be good or bad for the child depending on the intention of the person giving it.

    A person's intention in giving a reward can definitely be judged as good or bad, but I think this is a different issue and should be judged separately.

    That said, my main disagreement is with this passage:

    "...[I]t is never valuable to offer reward incentives to influence thought and action, because it takes the emphasis off of cause and effect. More specifically, it removes the beneficiary from the beneficiary's action. One must do the right thing because it is right, it builds character, it builds self-esteem, it builds a sense of efficacy. One cannot do the right thing for chocolate or praise or a new car or a diamond ring. One does it because it is in accord with reality."

    I disagree with this because I don't think rewards necessarily take a child's emphasis off of "cause and effect"--or remove them from their actions.

    In fact, I'd argue that in responding to their actions emotionally, and letting that take the form at times of things done for or given to them, it widens their understanding of "cause and effect."

    Note: I am not arguing building a parenting philosophy around rewards in the sense that some use them--which would turn the parent from their proper role as a guide to that of a trainer.

    I agree that kids should be left free to explore this world, and that an environment should be created for them where they are safe to do this without the potential for serious harm. I further agree that this should be their primary focus.

    However, within the context of a parent's relationship to their child, children should see that certain actions have certain effects, and they should see that (as with nature) when they act rationally, honestly, justly and so on, the results are good.

    The issue of being extrinsically motivated versus driven by their own values is connected to this issue, but do you see any dichotomy in what you're setting up? How would you relate it to business, or the world we live in as adults?

    In other words, when we work for company x, we expect to be rewarded for it. A market giving incentives to company x or the boss of company x giving incentives to employees is not wrong, in fact aligning incentives across an organization toward a long-range goal is positively good. How does this change for a child?

    Note: I don't have clear answers for the above yet, I just feel uncomfortable with setting external motivation as necessarily against internal motivation--as if the two are somehow necessarily opposed.

    Again with a personal example, I love to read and to write (internal motivation). Doing this for a company that pays is a great external reward. It does not replace what I love to do. And I would (as I recently did) turn down a large offer to do something else if it conflicts.

    I totally agree with the other stuff you wrote about neutrality and the need to be careful about coercion, and especially about kids and their bs detectors and their usual disregard for rewards that aren't connected with what they already want to do.

    I think we agree too that rewards as the term is sometimes understood should not be used to appease or indulge a child. If I'm right though you would add to this emphatically that neither should they be used to nudge a child--no matter the long-term context that the parent may have in mind and the child can't see. Correct?

  13. Daniel, I think you're conflating the terms "reward" and "compensation" in the business world, and extrapolating it back to the child/parent relationship.
    You are compensated in the biz world for your work, and compensated more for good work, theoretically. It is a quid pro quo. And there is nothing wrong with compensating a child for extra-chore stuff, like washing your car or doing one of your chores because you don't have the time, etc. This isn't a reward and the parent should not call it a reward. It should be put forward as straightforward compensation for a favor done.

  14. See my latest post, which you probably did when coming here. I think I'm using reward by its actual definition.

    As a verb, Merriam Webster defines it as to recompense. As a noun, its meaning includes compensation for actions--no matter whether they are good or bad, done by a child or an adult.

    I also think that "incentives" are what many see as wrong--specifically incentives that don't come from reality but from the parent. I'm unsure about that, but I want to define all my terms before starting.

  15. The key point here, Daniel, is whether someone is goading (incentivizing) another to do something they should already be doing instead of honoring (rewarding) already good behavior as justice.
    I like my broad definition of "reward" over the dictionaries' definitions. It leaves out intentions or whether an action being rewarded is good or bad. That way, you can talk about bad rewards and good rewards. Justice and rewards should go hand in hand.