Dear Tristan: On Rewards and Punishments

Dear Tristan,

Yesterday I wrote about expectations and the insidious nature of praise. I’d like to go a bit deeper into parts of that topic today, and share my thoughts – as your mom did in one of her earlier letters – on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

One of the things I’ve been trying to communicate to you throughout these letters is how important it is to me that you choose your own way in life – that you be empowered from a young age to decide who you want to be, and that I equip you with all the tools you need in order to become, not a compliant, submissive, obedient child, but a strong, self-aware, discerning adult.

A lot of parents take a mixture of two approaches to raising their children. At one end of the spectrum is the “carrot” – the practice of rewarding behavior seen as desirable. On the other end is the “stick” – the practice of punishing behavior seen as undesirable.

Our society recognizes that people who tend to the extremes of this spectrum are fostering unhealthy tendencies in their children: Those who rely solely on the “stick” are called abusive. Those who rely solely on the “carrot” are called indulgent.

But I think there’s a problem with the whole spectrum.

Multiple problems, actually.

First and foremost, it’s all about behavior – specifically, it’s about modifying your behavior to be in line with what I think it should be.

It’s also an exercise in raw power – it’s me, the bigger and stronger person, asserting that my will is more important than yours, and that you must change to suit my preferences . . . or else.

Finally, as I touched on in my last letter, motivating you through external pressure all to easily kills any internal desire you might have to do the very things I might wish to motivate you to do.

Of course, in the case of the “stick,” these issues are very easy to see. Naturally, punishment as a behavior modification is an exercise in power. And naturally, if I am punished for failing to do something, the moment the punishment no longer hangs over my head, I’m no longer going to want to engage in the activity that was being forced upon me under threat of punishment.

But the same is true of the “carrot.” Inducing behavior modification through bribes (let’s call them what they really are) is just as much an exercise in power. Ask any politician who has been induced by a donor to changed his position which of them holds the power in the relationship. Withholding that which we desire is just as powerful – often moreso – than threatening us with harmful consequences. And it’s certainly just as behavior-focused.

But it also kills desire just as thoroughly. If we’re rewarded every time we do something (either tangibly or intangibly through something like praise), our desire to do it when the reward is withdrawn is killed.

I’ve experienced this in my own life. I spent most of my childhood and early adulthood devouring all kinds of books – anything I could get my hands on. Since I was homeschooled, my reading was largely self-directed, and I gravitated toward a lot of non-fiction, particularly history books, biographies and political philosophy.

Then I spent nearly eight years in college and graduate school. I read all kinds of history texts and biographies, and branched out into new and interesting areas of non-fiction: pure philosophy, science, theology, law, economics . . . areas where I’d done some reading, but not a great deal.

And for a while I enjoyed it. But because it was for a class . . . because it was something I felt I HAD to do, it became a chore. I did it very well, and got good grades, but the grades – the “incentive” – wore me down to the point where it was a burden to read the kinds of books I’d once enjoyed.

As I write this, it’s been six and a half years since I finished graduate school – nearly seven since I read my last textbook.

I still find it very difficult to sit down with a non-fiction book.

Because I did it well . . . for someone else. Because I did it for a prize. A degree. That framed piece of paper on my wall, and the things I did to get it, killed my love for nonfiction reading. I don’t want to do the same for you by becoming an external motivator. I want to help you find the joy in doing what you love for its own sake. For your sake.

So what does the alternative – teaching you to rely on intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, motivators to guide your decisions – look like?

To tell you the truth, I’m still figuring that out myself. I’ve made most of my choices in life motivated by external factors, and am only just beginning to discover how much more joy I find in the things I do when I do them for me, rather than because of anybody else’s “carrots” or “sticks.”

I can tell you what it will look like in some cases, though:

It will look like not resorting to spanking you when you do something I don’t like. If I believed “appropriate behavior” was the point of our relationship, and that any means was justified in eliciting that behavior from you, spanking would be perfectly appropriate. But I don’t, and it’s not. Instead, I will talk through situations with you and tell you what’s on my heart each time it comes up. Your mom mentioned “Non-Violent Communication” in her letter yesterday. NVC is focused on understanding that behaviors are the strategies that each of us adopt to meet universal needs we all share. Some of those behaviors are effective, and some are ineffective. Some are helpful and some are destructive. But the point is not to punish or reward the behaviors, but to understand and meet the needs underneath them. I’ve seen this method of communication work incredibly well in a parent’s relationship with her very young children, so I know it can be done, and that’s what I want to do with you.

It will look like allowing you to take a hand in your own development, starting . . . well . . . now. For example, your mom and I are committed to “self-weaning” you. Many parents introduce food to their kids at a certain, arbitrary age – six months, a year, whenever they think their child might be ready for it. Your mom and I know that she’s fully equipped to meet your needs for nourishment until you decide you’re ready for something else. In the meantime, if we hand you a piece of chicken or avocado, and all you do is play with it, that’s fine and dandy!

We’ll continue allowing you to guide your own development by teaching you here at home, rather than putting you in a formal school setting. Your mom and I were both taught at home, and the freedom we had to guide our own studies and pursue our own interests is something we definitely want to pass on to you.

Like I said, I’m still figuring it out. The one thing I know is that I want it. Because there will be times in your life when you don’t do what I want you to, and I will grieve some of those times. But I would grieve infinitely more if you go through life not doing what you want to do.

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