The Case Against Gold Stars
By Alfie Kohn
the "gold-star syndrome." Sometimes we
paste stars on a chart. At other times we offer
toys or extra TV, candy or cash, pizza or special
privileges. We reward kids for doing what we want
instead of punishing them for disobeying.
out a child-care book at random -- or just watch
a typical parent at home -- and you'll notice
that the emphasis is on "positive
reinforcement." It is so pervasive that few
of us pause to question its effects.
news, according to a growing body of research, is
that bribery -- which is what rewards amount to
-- is not much of an improvement over punishing
children. In fact, I strongly believe that
rewards and punishments really aren't opposites
at all. They are two sides of the same coin, and
the coin doesn't buy very much.
work!" many parents insist. But work to do
what? And at what cost? The answer to the first
question is that rewards, like punishments, are
extremely effective at getting us one thing and
one thing only: temporary obedience. What
they can never do, however, is help children
become responsible, ethical, decent people.
conclude that rewards are ineffective. In the
process of writing a book on the subject, I've
found hundreds of studies showing that rewards
are strikingly ineffective at producing lasting
change in attitudes or behaviors. Once the
rewards run out, people go right back to acting
the way they did. And no wonder. Rewards don't
create an enduring commitment to any value or
action; they merely change what we do.
the questions that children may ask themselves.
Threaten a punishment and a child will come to
ask, "What am I supposed to do, and what
will happen to me if I don't do it?" Bribe
him by dangling a reward and he'll wonder,
"What am I supposed to do, and what will I
get for doing it?" Notice how similar these
two questions are, and how different from what we
want children to ask: "What kind of person
do I want to be?" Good values have to be
grown from the inside out; bribes and threats at
best change children's behavior only for a while.
isn't temporary compliance sometimes good enough?
Clearly it is tempting to use any means at our
disposal to stop a four-year old from making a
fuss at the store, to get an eight year-old out
the door on time, or to get a ten-year-old to
settle down and finish her homework. In the short
term, a sufficiently appealing carrot will
usually work. But the long-term costs are
simply control through seduction rather than
force, according to University of Rochester
psychologists Edward Deci, Ph.D., and Richard
Ryan, Ph.D., and all techniques that rely on
control ultimately undermine what children
need in order to make good decisions and take
responsibility for their actions. At least two
studies have shown, for example, that kids whose
parents reward them frequently are less generous
than their peers.
It shouldn't be. A child promised a treat or
praised extravagantly for helping people has
learned that the only reason to act that way is
that he'll get something for it. No reward, no
reason to care.
research shows that the more students are led to
focus on getting good grades, the less interested
they will be in what they are studying, the less
creative their thinking will be, and the more
they will try to take the easy way out. Again, it
makes sense: The more children see the
"A" as the goal, the more they will
come to see the learning itself as something to
be gotten over with. The practice of paying
kids for top grades -- offering, in effect, a
reward for a reward -- doubles the damage.
University of Illinois, researchers introduced
some preschoolers to a beverage called kefir.
Some were just asked to drink it; others were
praised lavishly or promised treats for drinking.
Did the rewarded kids slurp down more kefir? You
bet. But a week later they wanted nothing to do
with the stuff, whereas the children offered no
reward liked it just as much as, if not more
reading, doing math, or acting responsibly for
drinking kefir, and you begin to glimpse the
destructive power of rewards. In fact, a good
general rule is that the more we want our
children to want to do somethins, the more
counterproductive it will be to reward them for
not the reward itself that's objectionable --
it's the practice of using something as a
reward that causes the problem: "Do this and
you'll get that." This feels controlling,
causes dependence, and may spoil our relationship
with our children. We risk coming to be seen as
goody dispensers who have to be pleased rather
than as loving and caring allies.
the alternative? Even praise, if the emphasis
is on doing what we want and what makes us happy,
can be counterproductive. There is, however,
nothing wrong with positive comments that
acknowledge and encourage what children have done
-- and leave them feeling proud of themselves.
Such comments are nice but if our long-term goal
is more ambitious than getting kids to obey
mindlessly, then we'll have to take the extra
step of bringing them in on the process of making
might say to your seven year-old, "I've
noticed that lately it's taking you a long time
to get dressed in the morning, honey. What do you
think we can do to solve that?" And we have
to reconsider some of our requests instead of
just forcing compliance. For example, rather than
fall back on bribes to get a four-year-old to sit
through a long dinner, we might reflect on
whether that expectation is age-appropriate.
up anything that we're used to is a challenge.
But the evidence is clear: Rewards may be
effective at training a pet, but raising good
kids means working with them rather than
doing things to them.