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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, January 17, 2006

What's the point of rewards?

By John Rosemond

Q. Our son's new first-grade teacher gives children smiley faces for behaving properly. At the end of the week, they trade them in for prizes. On the other hand, nothing of any real consequence happens when a child misbehaves. At home, when our son misbehaves, we punish. We are concerned that the difference between our approach and the teacher's may cause our son confusion. Also, doesn't giving rewards for good behavior teach that proper behavior is deserving of something special?

A. Indeed, children should be taught that responsible people do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do, not because doing the right thing will result in reward. Behavior modification strategies of this sort (the method the teacher is employing is known in psychological circles as a "token economy" system) undermine that understanding.

Researchers have found that reward-based motivational and management systems seem to work best with children who are already well behaved and would continue to be well behaved without reward. Studies also have shown that the most well-behaved, well-adjusted children tend to come from homes where parents punish misbehavior. As regards children with behavior problems, rewards seem to have no lasting positive effect and may even be counter-productive. My experience, both as a clinician and a parent, confirms these findings. Despite the evidence, however, most school systems persist in dispensing rewards.

The sad fact is that many parents will not support the use of punitive discipline by their children's teachers, much less even acknowledge that their children are capable of wrongdoing. When their children are punished at school, these parents complain vociferously. Some even threaten legal action. As a consequence, many schools private and public tend to take the low road where discipline is concerned, avoiding punishment at all cost.

Unfortunately, this compromise almost surely results in more children being referred to outside professionals and winding up on behavior-controlling medication. The solution, of course, is for parents to support the use of effective punitive discipline methods at their children's schools. Most important, parents need to support the use of punishment with their own children (as opposed to only supporting it as regards other people's children).

Let me assure you, however, your son is in no harm here. The "discipline" used by his teacher is not going to cause him the slightest confusion, nor will it lessen the effectiveness of your discipline at home. As should all parents, you should ask your son's teacher to let you know if and when he misbehaves in class and follow through by punishing him at home. In the final analysis, a teacher's discipline, no matter how effective, is not as powerful a deterrent as effective discipline delivered by a parent. I've said it before, but it's worth repeating: A child who misbehaves in school and suffers no consequence at home will continue misbehaving at school, no matter how effective a teacher's discipline.

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents' questions at www.rosemond .com.