Book Review: "Punished By Rewards"

This is the kind of book that makes me want to get on a soapbox and shout that everyone should be reading and thinking about these ideas. I want us to take a look at how we use praise, rewards, power, con- trol and coercion, even inadvertently, on a daily basis. I want us to have the courage to take steps and make changes that will truly help our children grow and learn. I want it to be required reading for every parent, teacher and boss. 

Kohn challenges us to question a pervasive mode of operating that many of us have come to accept as normal: 

“My premise here is that rewarding people for compliance is not ‘the way the world works’ as many insist. It is not a fundamental law of human nature. It is but one way of thinking and organizing our experience and dealing with others. It may seem natural to us, but it actually reflects a particular ideology that can be questioned. I think it is long past time that we do so...”

Kohn examines the underlying beliefs of behaviorism and the spread of these ideas across institutions and through society. He looks at the implications of the use of rewards in the workplace, in schools and in the home. He questions the underlying beliefs about human nature. Do we believe that we are nothing but reactors to external stimuli? Are we only rats in a box, pressing on the lever to get just one more reward? Kohn questions Skinner’s assumptions and the many ways rewards and praise have been applied without thought to their long- term impact.

“Gradually it began to dawn on me that our society is caught in a whopping paradox. We complain loudly about such things as the sagging productivity of our workplaces, the crisis of our school, and the warped values of our children. But the very strategy we use to solve these problems -- dangling rewards like incentive plans and grades and candy bars in front of people -- is partly responsible for the fix we’re in. We are a society of loyal Skinnerians unable to think our way outside of the box we had reinforced ourselves into.” 

Quick to admit that rewards, including praise, can result in immediate compliance, Kohn cites many studies that demonstrate these results come with a huge long-term cost. Decades of studies have shown that rewards reduce intrinsic interest and pleasure in the rewarded activity and cause people to focus narrowly, which in turn reduces creativity, feelings of autonomy, sense of self-determination and productivity. Of course, how much and how well people do things will be influenced by their interest and motivation. Yet even with evidence of the destructive effects of rewards and praise, parents, teachers and bosses continue to use incentives and grades. How do we break out of the cycle of increasing rewards and decreasing motivation?

Punished by Rewards pushes us to look behind what we do with our children and to ask questions such as: Is it for their own good, or for our convenience? Is what we are asking them to do necessary to help them grow and learn, or is it just controlling? Do we just want compliance and obedience in the moment, or are we commit- ted to a process that will have the kind of long term results for increasing motivation, autonomy and purpose. Are our habits and actions creating people who are internally motivated and not limited by or addicted to external rewards?


Many of us have been raised with this carrot-stick philosophy at home, work and in schools and other institutions. The beauty of carrots and sticks, rewards and punishments, is that they are quick and dirty. One size fits all. So, what do we do instead?


Well, the answer is NOT one size fits all. It takes time and attention. We must pay attention to reason. We need to build relationships that include trust, respect, collaboration and choice. We must work toward shared decision-making and power. We have to actually talk with our children and partners. We can also take responsibility and discuss things when we goof up.

“The capacity to call into question one’s long standing ways of thinking and act- ing....belongs to the top of the list of what makes a good parent or teacher. And Skinnerian dogma belongs at the top of any list of what needs careful reexamination. The bad news is that we have paid an enormous price for having accepted it for so long. The good news is that we can do better.” 

One of the most frequent questions I hear personally is, “How did you motivate your son, Dale?” I often answer that we let him do things. As I reflect on this book, I think I have a better way of describing what we did and didn’t do that allowed Dale’s motivation, creativity, autonomy and sense of purpose to flourish -- we didn’t punish him with rewards! 


Lisa Nalbone shares her experience from teaching, community organizing, unschooling and raising her son, Dale J. Stephens of UnCollege, by offering tips, resources and consulting to support learners and parents.