Is Alfie Kohn Conning You?

Alfie KohnOne of my colleagues sent me a link to a New York Times article by Alfie Kohn, Do Our Kids Get Off Too Easy?.  As with most articles by Mr. Kohn, I shouldn’t respond but figured somebody might take his advice seriously so I felt I needed to.

The reason for the popularity of Kohn’s books, articles and speeches is that he strikes a chord that resonates with parents who trust what Kohn says about the research he reports,  with most likely little inclination to examine that research themselves. These parents have likely tried many solutions to difficult behaviors at home and at school, and find that few of these other ideas have worked. Furthermore, because many people do use positive reinforcement and rewards poorly, there is no end to examples where parents buy Kohn’s assertion that the problem is the rewards and reinforcers and not the way people use them.    

First let me say that Kohn actually says some things with which I agree. For example, competition in academics is out of place. You do not have to have losers to have academic excellence. Students should not be graded “on the curve.” Every child should be able to make an “A.” Struggle and sacrifice is not the best teacher. As Andy Griffith once said when asked if being raised poor contributed to his sense of humor, “No doubt that it did but it is a hell of a way to learn to be funny.” 

Although I agree with Kohn’s descriptions of problems in school and with parenting, I almost always disagree with his solutions. I have a serious problem with what Kohn refers to as “conditionality.” He seems to think nothing should be earned since that would mean there were conditions or transactions attached and conditional rewards and reinforcement are bad. He values “self-esteem” but talks as though it is a gift from God – I guess something you are born with, not something that you earn. Even more valuable than “self-esteem” is what he calls “unconditional self-esteem.” I know of no studies that support such a conclusion. If he knows, I would like to read them to see if they are valid. Everything I know about behavior indicates that “self-esteem” cannot be given; it must be earned. “Earned” creates feelings of pride and joy that can never be duplicated even by the most expensive gift. Think about how you felt when you learned to tie your shoes or learned to ride a bicycle. Every time we earn something these feelings recur and enough success of this nature leads to high self-esteem.

Intrinsic Motivation and Self-DeterminationKohn relies heavily on the “research” of Edward Deci, a psychology professor at the University of Rochester and author of the widely quoted book, Intrinsic Motivation (1975). Deci’s notion of “Intrinsically motivated” essentially means that motivation is its own reward. How liberating is that for a parent not to have to worry about such mundane things. You shouldn’t have to reward a child for doing what they should do because they are member of a family. Some things they should do, just because they should. Good luck with that one. Or as Dr. Phil would say, “How’s that working for you?” 

Even most readers of Deci’s work don’t really question his interpretation of his own research findings (that motivation is an inside job and rewards produce inferior behavior and values) because there is an element in them that sounds right. I guess intrinsic sounds better and is more intriguing or mysterious than a “do this; get that” process of motivation. “Do this; get that” sounds so mechanical, or to use Kohn’s word, transactional. I guess the word “intrinsic” sounds so much more attractive.

Tom Gilbert, professor of psychology, observed the legendary (and very successful) football coach at the University of Alabama, Bear Bryant, watching the team’s practices and Bear’s coaching behavior. What he learned was that what he said about producing winners and what he actually did was quite different.  He never went in at half time and gave them an inspirational speech. At one point Tom said, “But coach, what about all that talk of leadership and inspiration being your keys to success?” “Aw, people like to hear that sh_t.” Bear continued, “Winning inspires my boys.” The point is that you may read or hear something that you like and agree with but you still cannot put it to any useful practice because you don’t have all the facts. It is important to know what the researcher actually did.

Kohn quotes by Assor, Roth and Deci, The Emotional Costs of Parents’ Conditional Regard: A Self-Determination Theory Analysis (2004) to bolster his assertion that conditional regard is not a good practice for raising children. However what the authors actually investigated was “parents’ use of conditional regard as a socializing practice to predict their children’s introjected internalization (as indexed by sense of internal compulsion), resentment toward parents, and ill-being.” (If you don’t understand that explanation of the study, you are not alone.)  

As I can best figure this one, the authors looked at college student memories of negative reinforcement and punishing events by parents and grandparents. From these memories the authors made predictions about current feelings of college age children. I often quote the late, Maya Angelou who said, “I may forget what you said; I may forget what you did, but I will never forget how you made me feel.” Of course the participants had negative feelings about control of this nature.  Who wouldn’t? 

I don’t see much value in this “research.” I would not call it scientific research as this study is a survey of what participants remember about the way mothers and grandmothers did things in the past and how it impacted them in the present. Memory is not reliable about much of our upbringing so results of a survey cannot be considered valuable. Before accepting any scientific evidence as gospel, look at what was done, what the numbers were and how they were interpreted. 

However, data about how the subjects felt are always valid but the data collected in this instance was very biased. Even so, the highest correlation they obtained out of a hundred or so that they calculated was .53. A correlation of .53 explains only 28% of the variance, not a very substantial number even under the conditions of the study.  Further along the road to my complete craziness, the authors conclude, “The results of two studies suggest…” I respect the conclusion that they did not find a real relationship between the variables studied. However, later they conclude, “Overall, the two studies showed…” Later, “Study 1 indicated…” What happened to “suggest?” Again, the data do not support their claims.

Kohn says he cannot find research that contradicts his conclusions. I cannot find real scientific research to support his conclusions. His interpretation of the study is that “conditional regard” as in loving children as a condition of the child’s behavior is a bad thing. Do something bad and the parent withdrawals parental love. I agree; that’s just not right. No parent should do that. I love my children no matter what they do. If they do bad things, which thankfully they rarely if ever do, I would still love them and would do everything I could to help them out of trouble. While not liking the actions of a child at a particular time, I would never say that a parent should withhold love. To guide and direct a child’s behavior is a loving act of parenting. To withhold love is a terribly misguided act of what it means to be a parent.

conditional loveAlthough I can’t imagine anyone in a position to help parents who would suggest using parental love as either a punisher or reward, Kohn seems to think it is rather common. He jumps from the position of parents as guides to the idea that any correcting is about withholding love and to the parent-child relationship one of a simple stimulus-response, withdrawing love of all things when the child fails. The science of behavior has not found that. From what I have read of Kohn’s writings, he apparently believes that all rewards and reinforcers are essentially transactions involving parental control – a negative sort of control. For example, he would not recommend that parents say to a child, “When you finish studying, you can go play with your friend,” as this is conditional or transactional (a bad thing). But there is extensive research demonstrating that it is a very effective “transaction” for not only getting studying done but also for improving parental-child relationships. His naïve interpretation of the word ‘conditional’ moves from the world of learning what is valued by our actions to making the world a very fearful place indeed. 

As to the title of the article, “Do Our Kids Get Off Too Easy?” My answer is “yes” because those children who get everything they ask for, beg for, or have a tantrum for are learning they are entitled in that what they get is owed to them as a birthright.  Those behaviors and attitudes will make for a difficult adjustment to a world that doesn’t respond to them as their parents did.  Not only that, but children who receive things non-conditionally yet whose behavior is out of control, often report that no matter what they do, it doesn’t really matter as far as their parents are concerned.  In other words, their parents don’t care what they do.  Translated another way, their parents don’t love them.  How ironic since this is an outcome that is the opposite of what Kohn predicts.

Giving to others is a valuable gift that can be taught and children are aware that their out-of-control actions should NOT be rewarded. “Passive neglect” is a very harmful parental or teacher pattern where no words or actions are taken when someone is out of control. It recognizes the child’s actions in the most awful of ways, encouraging her to harm others or demonstrating to that child, that no one cares enough to say, “No.” On the other hand, the child who never gets anything also reports that  no matter how good, how correct, how immediate and how constant the child works to please, those who withhold positive responses to such effort create in these children a sense of worthlessness, depression and dependency. Although Kohn reports that he knows of no studies of harmful effects of conditionality (non-contingent reinforcement), I just found 62,700 places on Google for him to look. 

Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generationsAndrew Carnegie is quoted as saying, “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.” He was talking about how most inherited wealth in the U.S. is squandered. The first generation works hard and long to accumulate wealth that they pass on to their children, who neither work hard nor long but enjoy the luxuries of life since they have never had to develop the habits required to grow the fortune. Consequently they squander the fortune only to have their children in the position where they have to start the process of working hard and long to make a living.

How anyone can not believe in a conditional world blows my mind. The only non-conditional situation that is somewhat productive is ants feeding the queen. People that I have worked with who were close to leading a non-conditional life were patients in a mental hospital. They wouldn’t eat unless someone brought the meal and fed them. They would not dress unless someone dressed them. They would not go to the bathroom unless someone took them. Every need was taken care of by others. Although Kohn may say that this is an extreme situation, he needs to consider the extreme of a child growing up without any conditions of approval for what he says or does. He needs to consider what led these patients to this place of total dependence. It goes well beyond their diagnosis. It has to do in some large part for many with years of non-contingent reinforcement for things they said and did. I am sure that Kohn in his wisdom interacts with others in ways that demonstrate his positive regard and his displeasure. I agree that hospitalized patients are an extreme example, but the work that brought these people to a productive and happy life for the first time in many years was all contingent (Ayllon and Azrin, 1968). 

Living a life where all things are handed to you is devoid of accomplishments and feelings of self-worth. This kind of life leads to a result that is very clear. The ultimate result of a non-conditional life is a life not worth living, I assure you. Children who are provided praise and assurance for their steps toward doing the right thing are often saved from a life of despair about such fundamental questions as self-worth. Children who are taught rules and the limits of their behavior also report greater self-satisfaction and worth. Behavior that matters is always conditional. Otherwise, how would you know that it mattered?

On Trophies and Education

a trophy for everyoneAfter receiving a trophy at the season ending banquet of a tee-ball league, my grandson asked his mother, “Mama, what did I do to earn a trophy?” Even as a six year old he knew something was not right. His mother said she had to think real fast and responded, “Well son, you were at every practice.” I have no problem giving some form of recognition for all who attend practice and games regardless of their individual achievements, but not a trophy.

My problem stems from the rather universal definition of trophy. The accepted definition is “a cup, or other decorative object, awarded as a prize for a victory or success.” Unless you want to do away with trophies all together, limit trophies to those who are successful at some new aspect of their own behavior.  Otherwise the word has no special meaning. Give plaques or some other symbol of participation to all who deserve them. Reserve trophies for those who earn them. 

The goal of teaching is to transfer knowledge or skill in a way that results in the students not only learning, but loving the experience.  A successful teacher is one who is able to teach everyone.  That cannot be done by non-conditionality.  Conditionality creates confidence, independence and competence.  Non-contingent consequences create dependence, depression and incompetence.  Hundreds, if not thousands of scientific studies support this.  Do all parents and teachers know how to use consequences effectively?  No. I believe that if students don’t like a teacher, the teacher is not a good teacher, even if they learn. If children don’t love their parents, the parents have failed and the child may suffer for a lifetime. Contrary to what Kohn asserts, conditionality is essential to all learning, from academics to interpersonal relationships. A non-conditional life is an essentially self-centered, demanding life. Children learn that people owe them and that they need to do nothing in return. The result is a miserable, depressed existence where they are constantly trying to “find themselves.” Earning is the best way to success, but since you can’t accomplish much without successful interpersonal relationships (transactions, conditionality), genuine happiness is impossible.

Gilbert, T and Gilbert, M. (2003) The Science of Winning. ISPI Vancouver Special Article.

T. Ayllon & N.H. Azrin : The Token Economy: a motivational system for therapy and rehabilitation. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1968

Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.