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Alfie Kohn Punished by Rewards Summary

Updated on March 28, 2013

What is Punished by Rewards?

Punished by Rewards is a book written by Alfie Kohn, the author of "No Contest" and "The Brighter Side of Human Behaviour: Altruism and Empathy in Everyday Life".

The book looks at how we as a society have adopted the pattern of parenting by reward and punishment to such an extent that we don't even notice ourselves doing it. It also looks into how nearly ever aspect of our educational system (and many other institutes) also use some form of reward and punishment as a way of encouraging the behaviors or results that they want.

The book goes into great detail about how this system is not only ineffective but damaging and how it is so ingrained in society that we can spend our whole lives either being the authority figure using this reward system as parents, educators and employers or the receiver as firstly children, then students and eventually employees.

We are living in a world where our entire sense of motivation is based on doing something to get a reward or avoidance of punishment, be it a treat for a child's good behavior or grades for assignments we completed. Punished by Rewards takes a hard look at the effects of punishing and rewarding and aims to show us that manipulating others with incentives gives only a short lived successful result that can ultimately do us more harm than good and how the success of these actions can quickly turn to failure.

Kohn goes on to show us that the results achieved by the person being manipulated are far inferior to what they could otherwise achieve without incentive.

As parents this book can be an unsettling look at how we are raising our children as well as what faces them when they enter the education system and eventually the workplace.

Parenting and Punished By Rewards

To say that reading Punished by Rewards has changed my life would be extreme but to say that it has changed how I see the world and how I approach parenting is much more accurate. I never thought I was a huge practitioner of the reward and punishment way of parenting, avoiding the reward charts that many child behavior specialists recommend, but Kohn's book has shown me that it is not only ingrained in my way of thinking but in almost everyone's.

The book gives us many examples of how we "reward and punish" without even realizing we are doing so and learning how to parent without this method when it is so much a part of society is also difficult. Even if we do achieve it we have little control over how the rest of the world uses it on our children.

We send them to school to be educated and the first thing that will happen when our children enter the education system is usually some kind of reward for work or behavior very early on. In my children's case it would be sweets at the end of each week for whichever children were well behaved or achieved the most "gold stars" during the week.

How many times have you used or heard these classics?

"if you don't do (insert behavior here) you won't be allowed to (insert reward here)" or one of the most common, "if you eat all your vegetables you can have dessert"

Pretty soon the child will respond to these bribes and instead of eating their vegetables because it benefits them to eat healthily they eat it for the reward. Replacing the other reasons to eat such as nourishment, health and enjoyment of good food with a less healthy outlook of "if I eat it I can have something less healthy"

Take away the after dinner treat and the incentive to eat their vegetables is gone too. Why eat them when they are no longer going to be rewarded for it? Of course you could then take the approach of punishing them for not eating their vegetables which is much the same thing, they are only eating them to avoid punishment. We are teaching them nothing either way.

Punished By Rewards - The Trouble with Gold Stars, Inventive Plans. A's, Praise and Other Bribes

Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes
Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes

Available in Kindle and paperback format. Read the groundbreaking novel on operant conditioning and learn why it can do more harm long term as well as strategies that anyone can use as an alternative.


Punished by Rewards Summary - Chapter 1

Punished by Rewards focuses on instrumental conditioning, how an action is controlled by something that comes after the action rather than before. The theory is that if a certain behavior is rewarded then the behavior is more likely to be repeated in the future, something that Kohn refers to as "pop behaviorism"

Much of the book is focused on "pop behaviorism" and how saturated our lives are in this type of behavior. He takes a look at the different (but overall the same) forms of rewards that are used in schools throughout the world, especially grades as these are not only incentive based rewards placed on performing students but official and mandatory forms of rewarding high achieving students.

The rewards are then further enforced by parents who opt to give what are often expensive gifts to their child for achieving high grades.

For the student this means that they are now working to get. If they do well they will get a good grade and they will get some other material item they want. They are now working to obtain these items instead.

It is not just the students however who are offered incentives, educators are also commonly rewarded and/or punished depending on their students academic successes or failures in the form of pay rises and job security or demotion and lack of job security.

Behavioral manipulation plays a part in all of our lives and Punished by Rewards sets out to show us why this is far from a good thing.

Kohn points out that it's not just material rewards that do damage but verbal manipulation in the form of praise. This is something that I think many parents find it hard to get their heads around because it is so often recommended that we offer praise as much as possible.

He also points out the while rewards work in the short term we fail to notice that "the more rewards are used, the more they seem to be needed"

Most parents can probably relate to this. the first time a reward is offered for a behavior or to stop a behavior it may work, it may even work several times but at some stage the reward becomes less of a novelty to the child and the parent realizes that the behavior was not in fact altered but simply controlled by the reward. At this point the parent can offer an even better reward to entice the child to behave or understand that the behavior is not being corrected by the use of the rewards. The child is not learning anything from this rewarding and punishing they are simply doing to receive or avoid when a better approach would be teaching the child why their behavior is not acceptable (if that is the case) and how it affects themselves and others to behave in that manner.

If you have read this far then you are probably wondering what exactly you should be doing if your can't reward or punish. Kohn addresses the alternatives to rewards and to controlling people with them in the final few chapters of the book and provides strategies that can be used by anyone based on teaching our children to be self motivated and aware.

More Alfie Kohn Books

Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason
Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason

This is a book that any parent who wishes to move away from the recommended practices of time outs and other forms of punishment.

Kohn shows us how to teach our children to behave because it's the right thing to do and how their behavior affects the people around them.

Feel-Bad Education: And Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling
Feel-Bad Education: And Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling

This book is compiled of a series of thought provoking essays on our rigid education system and the negative effect it can have on our children

Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community, 10th Anniversary Edition
Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community, 10th Anniversary Edition

In Beyond Discipline Kohn takes a look at classroom management, educators and children's intellectual development

The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing
The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing

Is homework important, should our children get homework? Kohn looks at our misconceptions about learning and the focus on competitive learning.

No Contest: The Case Against Competition
No Contest: The Case Against Competition

In No Contest Kohn looks at how competitiveness is damaging and how it poisons our relationships and can actually result is poorer performances.


You Can't Change the World

Maybe not but you can decide how you want to live in it and you may not be able to change the way schools and workplaces use material and verbal manipulation on your loved ones but you can teach your children to not measure themselves against others achievements and be motivated by their own goals and what they want to achieve instead of being motivated by a smiley faced sticker on a chart.

Getting your child to behave the way they should and the way you want them to are two different things and can stifle their learning. Modifying behavior by use of praise teaches children that their achievements are measured by how much they please others instead of their own sense of accomplishment at something.

In most schools very young children quickly learn that they are there to please their teacher and that becomes their aim for schoolwork and behavior, instead of learning to learn they are studying to impress and are rewarded for doing so.

Punished by Rewards is thought provoking and well worth reading for parents, educators and anyone interested in human behavior.

Have you read Punished by Rewards?

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    • profile image

      Bob Marland 

      2 years ago

      I think that Alfie Kohn uses the intellectual isights that he has as a transgender woman to show that the ideals of behaviorism that wel live by today are indispensible, and that we need to accept them. Aren't I a goddess?


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