Positive Reinforcement is Making You Work Harder, Yes Really.

Updated: May 10, 2021


I am a recovering sticker chart, positive praise, precision request, ignore negative behavior junkie. There I said it. I bought in totally and completely to the idea that rewarding positive behavior and ignoring negative is the gold standard of childcare, specifically behavior management. Boy was I wrong. (I find the passing years put me in my place, often. Age and humility go hand, apparently) Here’s what I’ve learned: My praise is killing intrinsic motivation, undermines connection, and in the end, it’s making me work harder.


Praise and Rewards Kill Intrinsic Motivation


Intrinsic motivation is when you do something because it is interesting or enjoyable. Extrinsic motivation is when an outside stimulus (like a treat or deadline) is needed in order to do something. Wikipedia defines motivation as “the reason for people's actions, willingness, and goals. Motivation is derived from the word motive which is defined as a need that requires satisfaction.” When I think about what it means to be human, to experience joy, to create, to learn, to be; motivation is a huge part of living a fulfilled and satisfying life. Part of living a fulfilling life is tapping into the joy and pleasure of learning, playing, creating, and cooperating just for the fun of it. If we trap our children into a mindset that says, “What do I get out of this?” or “It’s no fun unless someone is watching/praising/validating.” We are trapping them into a hard life. Believe me, I know. I am someone trapped so deep I can hardly write this paragraph without wondering, “What will other people think?” “Can I make money doing this?” That is what we are doing when we buy into “positive reinforcement”. We are sending a message that says things are not worth doing just for the joy of doing it. If it were fun and pleasurable, why would I need a gold star after?


Praise and Rewards Undermines Connection


My praise has undermined the connection with my children and it did the same for my students. Positive reinforcement, bribes, and praise are all tools to manipulate and control. What I have learned is that where control and manipulation exist connection cannot be. Why? Because we are human, and no human ever has met power and control exerted over them without some form of resistance. We are encouraging resistance, push back, and struggles when we drive relationships with power and control. Have you ever had a controlling boss? How was your connection? Did you want to spend time with them? Did they make you want to comply or cooperate? How did you feel? Resentful, vengeful, disengaged, and defeated maybe? This is how positive reinforcement is making our children feel. What if you went to your boss and said “I need to leave early today, I have an appointment to get to.” and their response was, “Awe, come on honey, you don’t really need to do that. If you stay until the workday is over, I will get you a nice comfy chair for your office. Would you like that? No. Well, how about I bring donuts for you tomorrow?” Ugh, its patronizing and sounds ridiculous.


The same goes for compliments. When we excessively compliment and praise our children in order to get them to do something it's manipulative and will cause tension in your relationship. How embarrassing and awkward would it be to hear across the room, “Thank you so much for being prepared with your notes for our staff meeting!” “Wow! Great job putting those numbers into that Excel sheet!” “I thought the email you sent about your project was on point! Incredibly detailed and complete writing!” When we excessively praise and complement, we risk being inauthentic and patronizing. No one feels connected to someone they do not see as genuine. Connection needs authenticity, communication, understanding and time, not manipulation and control.


The Praise and Rewards are Making Us Work Harder


It was such an “ah ha!” moment for me when I realized my positive reinforcement had been making me work harder with my children. Here’s how. Positive reinforcement glorifies the task, so it seems out of the ordinary. If it’s not an normal every day thing, why would I adopt it into my normal everyday habits?


“Yaaay! You peed in the potty!! Great job, you’re so big and awesome!”

“Wow! You ate all your veggies! That’s great, your body will be so big and strong!”

“Look at you kick the ball! Wow! Amazing! You kicked so far!”

This is a lot of energy and attention given to very ordinary every day tasks that are perfectly normal, natural, and human. It sends a message that normal tasks and behavior should be recognized, praised, and glorified. It makes the adults work harder because children become addicted to these types of interactions. Therefore we see parents, including myself, struggle with children who cannot play independently, wait while adults are talking (not interrupt), and feel content with things as they are.


Another way positive reinforcement is making your job harder is because children pick up on your agenda. You're showing your cards! As soon as you give away what you need them to do, it is almost certain to be met with resistance. Think about all the times you needed or wanted something from your child. You’re running late for work and you need them in the car, you’re at the store and need them to stop screaming, you have to clean the kitchen so you need them to play alone. At what point does your child stop and say “hmm, you really want this from me, let me help you out here.” Never? Seems about right. That is how positive reinforcement invites resistance. They can feel you needing and wanting it from them. “You really want me to eat my veggies huh? Welp, how about I throw it on the floor!”


Steve Taylor Phd from Phsyology Today writes:

"worst of all, wanting leads to more wanting. We often have a naïve belief that we’ll one day reach a place of fulfillment, where all our desires are satisfied and we don’t need or want anything else. But this very rarely happens. What usually happens is that the satisfaction of one desire brings a short spell of satisfaction, but then leads to other desires. Wanting is a process that never ends, and that easily spirals out of control."


This is the biggest argument for why positive reinforcement is making our job harder. Wanting leads to more wanting. Praise, prizes, bribes, attention, excessive complements will only lead to wanting more of these things.


If wanting leads to more wanting we need to steer our children into the direction of wanting connection, learning, challenges, engagement, fulfillment. Not superficial positive reinforcement. This will help our children cultivate satisfaction, purpose and joy in their lives. The connections we make will be deeper and more authentic. In the end, it will make our jobs a whole lot easier.


Compliments and genuine appreciation are different from positive reinforcement, these should be given freely and often.


Wondering when your praise or compliments have crossed the line? Ask yourself this question. Am I giving this compliment because I am genuinely pleased/proud of my child, or am I giving this compliment because I want more of this behavior? If you find the latter to be true tone it back, get to a place that feels authentic and connected. You will know it when you feel it.


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