Books I Want My Kids to Read Someday #82: "Punished by Rewards" by Alfie Kohn

Dear kids,

Who would’ve thought that offering rewards is a horrible way to motivate someone to learn? In Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes, Alfie Kohn, a well-known proponent of self-directed education, makes just this argument—and just may change everything you think you know about prizes, trophies, gold stars—even grades.

My Summary:

Behaviorism—the idea that human behavior can and should be controlled through externally motivating factors—is our cultural paradigm, and its legitimacy goes largely unquestioned. But this is not the only way to motivate kids to learn, and certainly not the best one.

Rewards and punishments are sometimes effective, but mostly just in the short-term; long-term, they often backfire.

There are five main reasons for this:

  • They manipulate. People don’t like to be manipulated, told what to do.
  • They rupture relationships. People begin to do nice things for rewards rather than out of true altruism and caring.
  • They don’t get to the root of the problem. They don’t help us discover why the “bad” behavior or lack of desire to learn is there in the first place.
  • They discourage risk-taking. They cause people to not want to fail.
  • And, most important: They cause people to lose interest in a task for its own sake. Learning, one of the most natural pleasures of the human experience, is no longer considered fun.

The author tells the story of old man who paid kids to tease him, then gradually lowered the payment. After a while, when the payment was lowered to just one cent, they lost interest and stopped.

Learning declines when learning activities are extrinsically motivated.

Verbal praise is one of the most-used rewards, and one of the most problematic.

The reasons for this include:

  • It signals low ability. When kids are praised for something they did easily, or something they did poorly, it makes them feel they’re being treated like a child or an idiot.
  • It causes praise addiction. Praising a child’s intelligence, for example, causes them to create an unhealthy identification with their intelligence that makes them afraid to fail, especially in front of others.
  • It reduces interest in a task. Kids who are overly praised for a particular activity assume the praise is meant to get them to do something they wouldn’t do otherwise. This assumption causes them to no longer desire to perform the activity.
  • Praise is a way to keep children dependent on us. It’s a shortcut—an external motivator that appears internal.


  • When you praise, praise specific tasks or effort. Don’t praise intelligence or skill in general. Make praise as specific as possible.
  • Avoid phony praise.
  • Avoid praise that sets up a competition.

This challenge also applies to the workplace. We think we can motivate people externally, but we can’t. We can only set up conditions in which their inner drive/motivation is able to thrive.

How to do this? Studies support using the 3 C’s:

  • Collaboration (give them good people to work with);
  • Content (give them meaningful work); and
  • Choice (give them autonomy).



Get the entire recommended reading list at Books I Want My Kids to Read Someday.


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