Rethinking discipline
By Annie Addington,
Ledger-Enquirer, September 8, 2007

Alfie Kohn* is the author of 11 books on human behavior, education and parenting. He is a former high school teacher and the father of two children, 11-year-old Abigail and 7-year-old Asa, and an outspoken critic of the focus on grades, testing, rewards and punishment in schools and homes today. After reading two of his books and finding that they were making me rethink certain aspects of my parenting, I decided to track him down for an interview. Here are some excerpts from our discussion:

There's been a debate raging recently about the continued but limited use of corporal punishment in the school districts in and around Columbus. Emotions run high on this issue, and many people in the pro-paddling camp argue that schools are out of control today and crime rates are rising because kids no longer get the kind of hard-nosed punishment for misbehavior that they once did. What would you say to them?

First I would challenge the premise that crime is higher than it was or that most crime is committed by juveniles. Both of those statements are simply false. Then I would point out that the kids most likely to do horrendous things are over-controlled by their parents and more likely to be witnesses to, if not the victims of, the exact kind of violence that corporal punishment represents. Punishment in itself is problematic because it's based on the assumption that we can help kids become better people by deliberately making them unhappy when they do something wrong.

Physical punishment is the use of violence on children to try to change their behavior. It teaches kids a lesson, and the lesson is that when someone with less power than you have does something you don't like, you use force to try to compel that person to change. When that lesson is mixed up with love, as is the case with parents using corporal punishment, the effects are even more disturbing, and research shows overwhelmingly that the use of spanking makes kids more unhappy, more anxious, more aggressive. A much more pervasive practice in managing children both in the home and the classroom is the use of rewards. Talk about why you think using stickers or other incentives is a bad idea.

Rewards and punishments are not opposites; they're both ways of doing things to children to make them obey rather than working with kids to try to solve problems and help them become decent people. Rewards and punishments can achieve only one goal and that is temporary compliance but at a very large cost... . More than 70 studies have found that the more you reward kids for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward.

Thus research shows that children who are given positive reinforcement are somewhat less generous than their peers because they've learned that the only reason to help is that they will get something out of it. Research also shows that when kids have been led to work for good grades they lose interest in whatever they were doing in school leading up to the grade. That's why the best schools in the country don't use grades at all and are more likely to produce kids who are deeper thinkers and more excited about learning.

A lot of parents would have a hard time envisioning what it would look like to manage their own children without the use of some rewards and punishments. Can you describe a sort of overarching philosophy for working with children?

Well I always start my workshops by asking parents what their long-term goals are for their children. And I always get the same kinds of answers: "We want our kids to be happy, ethical, caring, compassionate, responsible, lifelong learners and so on." Rewards and punishments can never help to achieve any of these goals; they can only hurt.

But we can make it a little more likely that they'll turn out that way by responding to the reasons that lead kids to do things that are disturbing to us sometimes, to understand the motives and values that underlie behaviors rather than focusing just on the behaviors themselves. And all rewards and punishments are focused narrowly on the behavior, not on the children who engage in the behavior.

So we have to focus on the children and what they need in order to figure out what's going on. Our job as parents is to trust our children, to love them unconditionally and to provide the guidance and support necessary to help them live up to their best capabilities. That requires the absence of traditional discipline strategies, but it requires a good deal more.

If my child hits another kid, that's something I'm going to have to deal with that by figuring out first if the other kid's okay... but then trying to figure out why it happened and what I can do to help my child understand how it affected the other kid. If I punish him that's going to ruin everything because now he's just focused on himself and how he can avoid being punished in the future. His moral development has been impeded as a result of punitive consequences that cause him to become more self-centered. Sometimes it's a matter of establishing an unconditional and trusting relationship by talking about why that happened, how it made the other kid feel, what he can do next time if he's feeling really frustrated and so on.

But each situation has a different set of possible reasons, and each reason in turn has a whole bunch of different responses. There is no one-size-fits-all with good parenting, no set of all-weather strategies, but that's why rewards and punishments are so popular because you don't have to think, you don't have to be talented, you don't have to be patient or take time or have any care or courage in the way that you must with more effective parenting.

As a parent, one of the things that has influenced me in your writing was your recommendation to avoid using praise. I caught myself saying "Good job," and "wow" and "that's great" to my son all the time. Talk about why you think these phrases can actually be detrimental to a child's development.

We need to love our children unconditionally. They need to get the message from us that even when they screw up or fall short we still care about them. Praise... is the opposite of that. It says they have to jump through our hoops, they have to impress us or please us in some way before they get the big smile or the thumbs-up. And that is about controlling children, not providing them with the kind of parenting that they need in order to think of themselves as lovable people.

To say that we don't praise doesn't mean that we're sullenly silent or predominantly critical. On the contrary, a family where there's lots of warmth and hugs and unconditional acceptance along with guidance and parental direction is a far more loving household than one where the parents are saying good job every five minutes in order to get the kids to do stuff... .

So I offer some very simple alternatives. One is to watch and say nothing when a judgment from us isn't really required, which is most of the time... . Also sometimes we can just describe what we saw... . Another thing we can do is ask questions.

When my son Asa draws a picture -- he likes to draw maps -- I'll sit with him and look at the map and ask him what this is or how he figured out how to reduce the scale and so on. If I tossed out a judgment instead -- "Good job!" -- he would become less interested in drawing maps and come to see them just as a means to the end of getting that reaction from me. When I ask him questions about what he's done and how he did it and why -- in other words refrain from praising but show loving attention and respect -- that pulls him into the task and gets him more interested in what he's doing. And that's true for similar reactions when kids share, or when they read, or when they do anything.

* See related: Punitive Damages, Chapter 4, UNCONDITIONAL PARENTING: Moving from Rewards and Punishment to Love and Reason, By Alfie Kohn, Artria Books, 2005



Return to:
Parenting Wisely
Research and informed expert opinion
Front Page