Give children rewards and they’ll soon fleece you

10 June 2009
The Times and The Sunday Times
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The news that a mother rewards her 13-year-old daughter with cigarettes when she behaves has confirmed what I’ve been thinking for a while – rewards are, at best, ineffectual and, at worst, positively damaging.

A jobless single mother, Tracy Holt, 43, of Gosport, Hampshire, is so despairing of her daughter, Sam, that she now gives her some of her own fags on the rare occasions when Sam is pleasant. Ms Holt insists that the reward “works”.

Philosophically, she’s not alone: last week, Ofsted produced a detailed report on promoting good behaviour in schools and advocated rewards such as trips to the cinema to stop disruptive pupils from being unruly.

Having taught some pretty rowdy children like Sam during my 16 years as a comprehensive teacher, I’ve tried every bribe in the school book – commendations, certificates, stickers, stars, books, popular movies, trendy music, games, colouring in, melting ice-creams, teddy bears, toys, computer games, shortened lessons, trips to leisure parks, to the sweet shop, and to the lavatory. While these are generally healthier than dishing out tobacco, they are nonetheless fraught with dangers.

Some schools find bribes don’t work
Education: Reward system teaching children it pays to be bad
Chilling with kids: how to foster self-discipline
Mentors for schoolchildren
The central problem is this: teachers are rarely consistent. For some – the generous, soft-hearted teachers – simply being quiet merits prizes; for others, usually the mean or the forgetful, even a PhD thesis doesn’t deserve a bean. As a young teacher, I was trigger-happy about giving out rewards. Just making an interesting comment deserved a sticker, while something difficult, such as reading a book, deserved a slew of chocolate buttons. This led to an older, sterner teacher castigating me for “reward inflation”. He wisely said: “Give them a lollipop and next they’ll want your wallet.”

I ignored his warning until a fateful lesson on the last day of term when my pupils surged in a giggling mass towards the large box of chocolates on my desk – and my bribes to avert the riot that had already happened vanished before the lesson began.

This experience, together with my reading of Kant’s moral philosophy, made me realise that rewards are ridiculous: learning and good behaviour should be ends in themselves and not a means to an end.

Bribing children to behave merely teaches them that it’s necessary to misbehave to gain a fillip for their aberrant good behaviour. It’s time the British stopped corrupting their children. Perhaps the sad example of Ms Holt and her daughter will make us all rethink rewards: as with the Holt family fags, it’s time to give them up.

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