How to get kids to do what you want: Good deed its own reward

Dec 14, 2009 by

CHILD SPOTTED at the Pearl Brewery Farmers Market on Saturday, eating a red pepper right then and there. He obviously just wanted it, without any other reward given.

I hope the kids of San Antonio don’t hear that they might win an award if they do something nice in the next 60 days.

The San Antonio Police Department with the sponsorship of Valero Energy are handing out the first of 5,000 coupons for free drinks at local Valero convenience stores to kids they catch doing a good deed.

These rewards will be less detrimental if they come as a surprise after the fact than if dangled in front of kids’ noses like a carrot on a string.

It’s a saving grace also that the pay off for a selfless act is so low. The bigger the carrot offered, the more likely kids would tend to feel manipulated and even end up resenting what they have to do to get it.

This attempt to improve youth behavior is clearly well-intentioned, and such tactics are fairly effective with lab rats. Humans, however, come with more complex motivations and responses.

“Extrinsic motivators are most dangerous when offered for something we want children to want to do,” writes Alfie Kohn in Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s Praise, and Other Bribes.

LITTLE BROTHER also acting like it's normal to eat a raw vegetable while in public.

What are we telling kids when we offer them rewards for things like helping others?

First, are we suggesting that we think they wouldn’t want to help others without compensation?

Awards also appeal to self-interest, in contrast to concept of a good deed. Offering rewards for kindness appeals to the lowest level of reasoning. Similar to telling people not to steal and kill for the reason that they could end up in jail, it’s the weakest of all arguments for good behavior, as Kohn notes.

Encouraging people to think about what’s in it for them does little to encourage thinking of how others feel or about what’s right.

If a kid wouldn’t do a good deed before, what are the chances he’ll do one for the chance of winning a free drink? For someone who would do a good deed anyway, a reward risks robbing him of his honest satisfaction.

Imagine you’ve just done something selfless, even heroic, stopping to assist someone who’s being attacked, for example. You’re feeling like a decent person who just did someone some good. Then a police officer materializes and offers you a coupon for a free drink at the gas station. How would you feel?

Who wants to appear to have done a good deed in order to get a free drink? Many teens are probably more likely to conceal their good works or avoid them altogether if they know the police are eagerly watching them.

If this program is successful, it may continue. But how will it be evaluated? Will we see a drop in juvenile crime? Can we expect to see more young people doing random acts of kindness in hopes they’re observed so as to win a free drink? I think it will work about as well long term as offering desserts to reward eating healthy food. Nice try, but I’m skeptical.

If kids feel cared for, and see selfless behavior around them, if they’re taught to think about how their actions affect others, they tend to want to be good to others. That has its own rewards.

But promoting all that is a much bigger task.

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© Sacred  Appetite  / Anna Migeon  / 14 December 2009 / All rights reserved