Material rewards for good behaviour don’t just work only in the short term, but also have another disadvantage: children will be less motivated to undertake activities on their own initiative. It is a known fact from behavioural economics: the more people are rewarded for an activity, the less interesting and fun they find the activity. And the same goes for children. If you reward your child with dessert if he eats his veggies, you are basically saying: “Eating vegetables is so awful that a reward is granted.” A classic study from 1973 by social psychologist Mark Lepper of Stanford University (USA) showed this. Children from 3 to 5 years old, who initially derived a lot of pleasure from making drawings, seemed less inclined to draw after a while when they received material rewards for it.
And from a 2008 study by Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello, in those days connected to the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig (Germany), it seemed that 20-month-old children who were rewarded for their helpful behaviour would help less quickly of their own accord after that. The same goes for children who are abundantly praised when they do right/good, argues education author Kohn. This is also a form of reward. Many parents assume that giving children compliments will give them confidence and that a child can never be praised too much.
But the danger also exists that children become ‘addicted to compliments’, and only focus on getting as much approval from their parents as possible.
Praising causes uncertainty
So should parents rather stop praising their children? This conclusion is a little short-sighted, according to development psychologist Eddie Brummelman of the University of Amsterdam (NL). Complimenting children in itself is not good or bad, he says. “Whether a compliment has a motivating effect on a child depends on how that compliment is formulated.” There is actually an important difference between personal compliments like, “Wow, you are good!” and behavioural compliments like, “You did that really well!” Psychologist Carol Dweck of Stanford University (USA) showed this in the following experiment: She presented a puzzle that was easily manageable for all the 10- to 12-year-old participants. Then the class was divided into 2 groups. Children from the one group received personal compliments: “Wow, you are so smart!”
The other group was given behavioural compliments: “You did that well!” Then the children were allowed to decide if they wanted a more difficult puzzle that they could learn a lot from or a puzzle that was similar to the first puzzle. Ninety percent of the children who were praised for their effort chose a more difficult puzzle. The children who were praised for their smartness mostly chose the simple version. Dweck’s conclusion: the ‘smart’ children were afraid to be ‘unmasked’ with a more difficult puzzle.
Be careful with exaggeration
Personal compliments can cause children to doubt if they can really do a certain activity. But this doesn’t go for all children. A toddler who is praised exaggeratedly when he has solved a puzzle will only gain the admiration of his parents. An 8-year-old child will usually know that the children who are praised the most are not necessarily the cleverest in the class. Exaggerated compliments have a different result with an uncertain child than with a child who has a high self-esteem.
This was apparent from a study that Brummelman did together with his colleagues. “Children can feel under pressure to constantly prove themselves if they only receive self-esteem compliments like, ‘You are so good!’, or exaggerated compliments like, ‘You have made an incredible drawing!’ This can lead them to become less likely to take on a challenge out of fear of failure. Children with high self-esteem are actually motivated by these types of compliments to take on more challenges.” Problem is: parents are more inclined to praise insecure children with exaggerated and personal compliments, because they hope to give their child more self-esteem. But it only makes the child more insecure.
This doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t give compliments anymore, stresses Brummelman. “Our research suggests that parents should not stop with praises, it suggests that parents have to think about how they formulate their praises/ compliments. Whether punishment or reward works or not depends largely on your child and the way you punish or reward.”
Don’t be too good
We complain about the badly-behaved children of today. The neighbours’ children, of course, not ours. Still, we secretly don’t want well-behaved children. Because what is the most important characteristic that we want for our children, according to a study performed in 2012? At number 1 we have honesty. Then follows: taking others into consideration, being just, responsible, helpful, independent and open. Also critical, self-conscious and active are in the top 10. Obedience is hardly mentioned.
The study was a repeat of an almost identical study done in 1983. Obedience, modesty and diligence were high on the list back then. Those were the characteristics that the parents of the study in those days (the grandparents of now) found important. Now, even more than in the ‘80s, we seem to just want a child to be happy. A child who is nice and honest, but who also can fend for himself. In short, the opposite of obedient.
Say it honestly
Threatening children with punishment is senseless. At least if you want to get the truth out of them, research from McGill University in Canada suggests. Young test persons from 4 to 8 years old were left alone in a room for a minute. Behind them was a table with toys. They were warned not to look behind them at the toys as long as the researcher was gone. Predictably enough, most children did this anyway. On his return the researcher asked them if they had peeked. With one half of the children he added that
they would get into trouble if they lied.
He told the other half that it was better to speak the truth and that he would be very unhappy if they lied to him. Threatening with punishment seemed to yield little: the children in the last group more often told the truth.
Rather no time-out
A very popular punishment method among parents of today is the ‘time-out’. A naughty or difficult child is put aside either in the corridor or on a ‘punishment chair’ to blow off some steam and to think about his behaviour. It seems like a child-friendly way of punishing. Still, this is debatable. The Australian Association for Infant Mental Health warns that putting a child to one side can lead to insecurity and grief, especially for children under the age of 3.
American psychiatrist Daniel Siegel and paediatrician Tina Payne Bryson reason in their book No-Drama Discipline that a time-out can be just as bad as punishing a child physically. The way in which parents use the time-outs is by putting children apart when they are angry or frustrated. This means that children are rejected at the moment when they need their parents the most. A brain scan suggests that the social rejection that children experience during a time-out has the same effect as physical pain.