The Case Against Gold Stars
By Alfie Kohn
When we reward our children for behaving well, we teach them to ask, "What's
in it for me?"
Call it 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.
Pull 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.
The bad 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.
"Rewards 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,
Studies 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.
Consider 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.
But 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 considerable.
Rewards 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.
Surprising? 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.
Other 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.
At the 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 than, before.
Substitute 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 something, the more
counterproductive it will be to reward them for doing it.
It's 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.
What's 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
You 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.
Giving 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.
Copyright © 1993 by Alfie Kohn. This article may be downloaded, reproduced,
and distributed without permission as long as each copy includes this notice
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