Done with Rewards!

I know I’m done with rewards. I have come to find the whole concept demeaning and rude and so 20th Century. Behavior modification, extrinsic motivation, gold stars, contests, “races to the top”, it all seems to no longer be useful in the evolution of our species. I think we are finally ready to let motivation be intrinsic and allow everyone to be who they really are and not what the rest of us want them to be instead.

When I still see parents trying to engineer every aspect and action of their kids’ lives by applying one form of bribe, withholding, or gentle coercion of any kind, I find it so depressing. And when I see the kids accepting it as par for the course, the way life is, I get even more down. I can now only see the toll on the human spirit that all this manipulation exacts. The sighs and shrugs, the need to hide who one really is to play all these games, to measure up to others expectations rather than ones own. I can see kids thinking to themselves why bother having any of my own expectations, it just gets in the way of satisfying everyone else’s.

From where I see it, rewards are about coercion, pure and simple, end of story! I am convinced that truly actualized human beings don’t need any external motivation. Rewards are only necessary to motivate people who are otherwise beaten down, damaged, or otherwise estranged from their own internal compass. So offering someone such an incentive is essentially acknowledging that they are damaged goods and/or otherwise demeaning their essential human dignity.

Its been about twelve years since I’ve attempted to externally motivate anyone, and its been a wonderful run! Every human being I have encountered during that time I have been able to engage with mutual respect and dignity, acknowledging their inherent worth as they are, as they freely choose to express themselves. What a joy it is each day to wake up knowing that I will not be attempting to coerce any of the wonderful fellow souls that I will encounter. What a level of mutual trust and respect I have with my own two now young adult kids.

I see others I know stressing about how they are going to motivate their kids or their coworkers to do this or that task or achieve this or that milestone. It’s hard enough charting ones own course without constantly having to put yourself in the position of charting other’s as well, and being responsible (rather than them) for the outcome. “I’m not my brother’s keeper.” In fact isn’t “keeping” someone enslaving them, even if they get to benefit in ways from being “kept”?

Okay… I will grudgingly acknowledge there are circumstances where people need to be coerced, but they should be the absolute exception rather than the rule! It should be akin to a declaration of martial law and never part of business as usual.

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9 replies on “Done with Rewards!”

  1. Sarah says:

    I agree with you in theory, but the practice is difficult. Rewards and competition are two of the few ways I can get the kids to participate in class–often times they don’t want to be there and I don’t want to teach the material we’re learning, so that is the main problem. In a broken system, I’m finding it useful to play by their rules.

  2. Cooper Zale says:

    Sarah… I agree that the practice is difficult. My piece was a quickly written “rant” of sorts. I do understand your situation as a teacher. Your students have been maybe estranged from their own compasses and therefor requiring you to direct them to some degree.

  3. Masasa says:

    I have read all kinds of stuff on non-coercive parenting, but have had a terrible time trying to practice it in my own life with my children. None of the books seem all that practical in terms of application. I avoid all the obvious pitfalls of sticker charts (well, I have done that for a foster kid with a particular set of special needs, but otherwise have avoided it), etc. I don’t like that my kids use the “if you ____, I will ____” or “I am not going to _____ if you _____” or (perhaps the worst) “if you keep ____, I am going to ____” lines with each other because I know they get it from me, and it sounds so manipulative and annoying. Yet, I find my home life intolerable, unlivable when I try alternatives.

    I don’t want my posessions broken or destroyed, I don’t want my children to be repeatedly hurt by each other, I don’t want to be repeatedly hurt by my children, and I want to actually be able to get out of my house and go and do enjoyable things and not instead wait around all day for my kids to get dressed or whatever.

    I’m under further constraint from my partner who feels very strongly that our children, for example, should never be taken to school or the park barefoot or in pajamas. My kids seems content to be home and be miserable and in tears at the opportunities lost when they didn’t get dressed and get their shoes on. Losing the opportunities don’t seem to impact whether they actually get dressed or get their shoes on then or even in the future.

    I have stopped reading up on non-coercive living because it just made me depressed. It made me feel like something was wrong with me, or my children. Why can’t we make it work when you have apparently made it work for twelve years?

  4. Cooper Zale says:

    Masasa… I appreciate your thoughts and questions and I want to respond more completely as soon as I have the time.

    In the meantime I can recommend some books if you are up to that sort of exploration, including “How to Talk so Kids will Listen & How to Listen so Kids will Talk” (, and to get more of a big picture I would recommend “In Defense of Childhood” (

    I for what its worth mostly made it up as I went along, trying to remember my mom’s mantra, “kids will tell you what they need.” I have to admit that I was greatly aided in the process with our son Eric when we pulled him out of school in 8th grade and let him “unschool” at home. But that is still a very unorthodox educational path.

    More thoughts to come on my thoughts on your specific items in your comment. You can also reach me by email at

  5. Cooper Zale says:

    This is a book written by a woman who developed the parenting workshops (Quality Parenting) that my partner Sally’s good friend used to teach. There are ten reviews on Amazon that all rave about it.

  6. Masasa says:

    That’s the problem. I’ve read the books that everybody recommends, including those here (with the exception of the last one, which I’ll consider checking out). The problem definitely isn’t me being uneducated about the whole thing (I’m very familiar with both homeschooling and unschooling too, and chose a different route for now with my particular kids for a number of reasons). That’s why I stopped reading up on this particular subject. It seemed like everyone kept saying, “you’ve got to read this…it will totally change your relationship to your kids and maybe even the other adults in your life.” And I wasn’t getting that out of the books. And the more I read, the more depressed about the whole thing I got. So I stopped reading.

    Thanks for taking the time to respond. When I stumble upon blog posts like this, I always look on with awe and admiration.

  7. Cooper Zale says:

    Masasa… Maybe you need to get your partner to read one of these books, because maybe its the difference of world view between you that is causing some of your stress. Or maybe this whole approach just can’t work for you and your family right now and you need to at least be consistent and stick with maybe the “old school” approach to parenting.

    If you read any of the pieces about my own childhood, I was raised by very unorthodox parents including a mom who believed that “kids will tell you what they need.” So she and my dad somehow never got caught up in the whole rewards and punishments thing. They just gave me a lot of love and encouragement, noted what I spent my time doing and listened to my thoughts so they could provide me with the best possible enriched environment for me to grow up in.

    That included what I have come to call “imagination toys” (Tinker Toys, plastic figures and dinosaurs, Lincoln Logs, various boxes I could turn into boats and submarines, etc.) and an unfinished slab basement where I could set them up and create my imaginary worlds. It also included them finding places to live always next to parks where I could go and play with the neighborhood kids.

    I was never punished or rewarded in my entire youth. My parents had no agenda for me other than my own internally directed development, so they had no need to reward me for doing things I would not have otherwise.

    Unfortunately when my partner Sally and I became parents we got caught up in the whole rewards thing when our kids were young, trying particularly to encourage them to go to school and do home work when they did not want to (particularly our son Eric). But when, despite various types of rewards, I was dragging Eric out of bed every day in middle school, having him take Adderall, and leaving him crying on the curb by his school, I finally through in the towel. I faced the fact that a school directed by adults using standardized curriculum was just not a healthy learning environment for him, and my partner and I decided to pull him out and let him stay home.

    Eric was 13 and now he is 25 and a successful young adult and a wonderful “mensch” of a person. Since we pulled him out of school and stopped pestering him to do assignments of no interest to him, we have never had to or even had the inkling of rewarding or punishing him. It was a complete and profound paradigm shift which I probably can’t do justice to with mere words.

    But given that it is such a profound paradigm shift, you really have to be ready for it and all the collateral that can go along with it, including friends and family not understanding, fear that your kid will never amount to anything and the like. Maybe you and your kids’ world is not ready for such a paradigm shift.

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