Alfie Kohn’s conclusion about rewards is incorrect. Click here for our summary of the history of behaviorism, Kohn’s work, and a recent meta-analysis on the effects of rewards.
We read tons of parenting books here, in search of enlightened cohorts. The most common type makes no references to science or morality. It has no bibliography, and makes no principled argument. In short, it’s fluff; just somebody’s opinion. You may as well base your parenting knowledge on the quote tattooed on your friend’s ribs. These books are easy to spot and dismiss.
Alfie Kohn became well known in the 90’s by bringing Edward Deci’s dying work on rewards back into public awareness. With the fervor of a “fire & brimstone” evangelical preacher, he shames parents for daring to say “Good Job!” or “I like the way you did that” to our children (actual examples). Pick up any of his books. He is relentless in his condemnation of those of us who are interested in “controlling, manipulating, seducing, using, bribing, and fraudulently dominating” our children. These are all words he uses to describe rewarding a child, or verbally praising them for good behavior. The same way we would treat coworkers or adult friends, by responding to good behavior with good behavior, is apparently toxic and immoral with children.
Personally, I would tout this book as a fine example of terrible arguments in action. I hardly know where to start with my criticisms of his writing and argumentation style. Even a title like “Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community” drives me nuts. What does beyond mean? The last time someone told me his belief system was “beyond” mine, I’m pretty sure he was high as a kite, I may have put some change in his cup, but I definitely kept walking. Is there something wrong with discipline or compliance? Does he ever define these terms or make that argument? What does ‘community’ have to do with my kid hitting his sister? Aren’t discipline and compliance required for community? I know if my neighbors weren’t disciplined enough to comply with common law and property rights, I wouldn’t be living here.
None of these questions are answered. His writing style goes something like this: Strawman, attack, strawman, attack, redefine, conflate, personal belief, obscure, shame… and in the final chapter, offer no solutions or alternatives. I’d suggest an alternative title for his book: “Beyond Science: From weak data to pandering moral outrage”
Kohn make statements like “public praise is a fundamentally fraudulent interaction”. Did he bother to look up the word “fraud” (wrongful or criminal deception intended to result in financial or personal gain)? Should we ban high-fives, graduation ceremonies, and eulogies while we’re at it? Or “the child isn’t behaving himself, the reward is”. It’s like saying “you’re not working at your job, your paycheck is. You’re being manipulated”. It sounds clever, but makes no sense, and it’s pretty insulting. We’re not holding guns to these kids’ heads, nor threatening them with force, that would be coercion. We’re only ever advocating for voluntary exchanges here.
I’m even more disturbed that his style is popular. Alas, there are plenty of people who make this kind of argument today; that pay is coercive. That we don’t choose employment, but that we’re all wage-slaves to our capitalist overlords! And I think that’s why he uses the word “community” in the title of his book: he is invoking communist imagery. I believe these people are his target audience. They imagine you can solve problems of the economy by eradicating money, it’s no surprise that they believe you can solve problems of education by eradicating grades and incentives. They are opposed to voluntary, peaceful exchanges that generate win-win outcomes, and are determined to scare us into the idea that freedom is slavery, peace is war, etc. Their position, though sadly common, is radical, destructive, and lies squarely outside of the boundaries of the NAP, as there is always some form of aggression required to sustain the facade. Three-year-olds don’t develop “intrinsic motivation” to brush their teeth twice a day simply because you model it. Something in their environment must reinforce the behavior. Take away the positive reinforcers (rewards, praise), and what you have left are the negative reinforcers (threats, shaming).
Dishonest ‘science’, an agenda to deny peaceful, healthy systems from our children, emotional belittlement and condescension, and a failure to offer alternative solutions. The worst kind of book.