If you have a child in school, then you may know first-hand how schools are employing external motivators (both positive and negative) to entice our kids into doing their homework, following playground rules and behaving appropriately in the classroom. You may have seen the latest and greatest star charts, GOOD JOB stickers, goodies, currency (allowing kids to “shop” based on the tokens they receive), parties, consequences, and zero tolerance policies and so forth.
These systems may lead to “good behavior” but they are the thieves of discovery, wonder, trial, error and trust in the child. While rewards and punishments may seem fun, positive, necessary or even logical, adult imposed systems aimed at steering behavior affect both the child’s mind and the inquisitive process or “genius”.
What Goodies and Stickers and Punishments Really Do (and Say)
Motivation by goodies and rewards shifts a child’s focus from satisfying the internal “genius” to following an external, imposed authority and infrastructure.
The child’s internal voice stops saying, hmmm, I’d like to discover OR wow, I notice ____ and is replaced with the externally imposed voice asking what will I get OR how can I make this other person happy (so they like me and give me a pat on the head)?
In short, the child now is thinking: if I do this, I get that.
Likewise, using “punishments” or rigid discipline rules also steals the child’s focus. It replaces the joy of discovering through trial and error with absolute compliance. Instead of having the courage to make mistakes and a desire to gather feedback from choices, our children spend their time worrying about being sent to the time-out chair or losing recess time or not earning a bright smiley sticker.
It also sends a message: hey kid, before you even show me you can handle it, you aren’t to be trusted, so we, the adults- the authority- have put in place all kinds of ways to “get you to behave.” Of course many teachers do not overtly think this way, but if the school operates in such a manner, they are challenged with delivering choice and problem solving against a current of imposed thought.
The Messy Stuff is Where Magic Happens
When an entire learning structure is dependent on a system of do and do nots, children miss all the messy learning in the middle. They are not encouraged to ask, try, challenge or discover a new way because the “right way” is laid out for them.
They don’t practice taking risks or judging for themselves what might happen if….For example, what if a child decides to break a “rule” (we walk in the the classroom) to rush over and help a friend?
Perhaps it was worth it and he makes it safely. Perhaps he falls on his face. Perhaps the friend ignores him when he gets there. Or perhaps he gets a huge hug because he showed up. That’s the kind of learning that happens in the day of a child.
In Rick Ackerly’s article, What do Good Parents and Good Schools have in common? He addresses this issue- the confusion of adult authority in children’s lives and the energy spent “keeping things from happening” vs. “making things happen.” He says,
“The key to the door of our authority prison is this: Don’t underestimate children. Act as if this child has a genius, a teacher-within with whom we can form a partnership” and “seeing children for what they really are: creative, decision-making machines whose central purpose is to self-actualize, to become authorities.”- Rick Ackerly
In life, we all know from our own mistakes and risks, there are situations where hard and fast rules do not mean the same according to context.
Is the RIGHT choice always the one that will get you the sticker? Is a “punishment” necessary if you’ve truly learned through experience? Our children deserve the space to answer these questions for themselves, while they’re young and wildly fascinated to learn what it takes to become a competent, cooperative human being on this planet.
Does your child attend a school heavily dependent on stickers and goodies? Share your stories in the comments.
Interested in education topics? Wondering how to bridge the home-school communication? Sign up for our upcoming workshop with Rick Ackerly.