Sunday, April 23, 2017

Rewards and punishments

I've alluded before, in my autism posts, to my discomfort with the way a lot of autism advice and therapy is based on rewards and punishments.  Specifically, ABA therapy, which everyone tells me is the gold standard (except, of course, for the people who tell me it is abusive) is pretty much entirely based on rewards and punishments.

That level of focus is odd to me, because it takes the question of "how shall we motivate the child" and makes it the only question.  My experience, in parenting all of my kids, is that how to motivate them is only a small part of teaching them anything.  Even if the child really wants to know the thing, you still have to figure out the right way to teach them.  So I've been rather turned off by ABA because I already know how to motivate my kid, what I want to know is what teaching methods I should be using for best effect, and which things I should be teaching anyway.  I'm sure ABA does have some kind of method for those things as well, but I can't seem to find out about that.  Any research I attempt to do meets only answers like "we use sticker charts to motivate the child!"  Okay, great ... what do you do with that?

Now, I'm not purely opposed to rewards (or, occasionally, punishments).  On the one hand, I can see how for a non-verbal, non-communicative autistic child, an M&M is probably the clearest message you can send them saying "yes, we would like you to do more of what you just did."  And on the other, even a child who can communicate and understand sometimes does not want to do what you really need them to do.  Sometimes that's because they don't have a long-term perspective that allows them to realize the benefit of doing the thing you're asking (for instance, potty training -- all kids will benefit from being potty-trained once they've mastered it, but it's not all that fun at the time).  And sometimes it's because the thing you want them to do actually has no benefit for them at all, but only a benefit for you -- for instance, playing quietly when they'd like to play loudly, or helping out with household chores.  I would like Marko to help clean up his toys because he wants to, but I think that's kind of an unreasonable goal seeing as I don't want to clean them up either.  A reward is basically just paying him for his time spent doing something he doesn't want to do.  The other alternative is to threaten him with a punishment, but that too is an external motivation.

Sometimes we give kids a reward because they are somewhat motivated to do the thing, but not enough.  Marko is often half-excited, half-scared about something he could do, but his anxiety is very strong and often overrules his desire to do the thing.  I'd like him to be able to take a long-term view and realize that when you push past your fear, things turn out all right -- but he can't very well do that if he doesn't have a large enough bank of experiences where he pushed past fear and things turned out all right.  So sometimes we bribe him to do something, knowing that once he's pushed past the fear and done the thing -- say, his first time going to speech therapy -- he's not really going to care that much about the prize because he's happy that it ended up being fun after all.

Given the choice, I favor rewards over punishments.  After all, rewards are just adding more pleasantness to a child's life instead of more unhappiness, so it's a more positive sort of thing.  And children learn from what we do.  Which would you rather hear a child say?  "If you read me a story, I'll give you a toy!" or "If you won't read me a story, I'll take away your book"?  I feel like we've made this mistake a few times too often, because Marko has been known to scream, "If you put me in my room, I'll never be nice to you ever again!"  That said, to a child, a reward he hoped for that he isn't getting after all is not really any different from a punishment.  It's experienced, not as the status quo, but as the deprivation of something he thought was his.  This is especially true when it's something the child receives often, because they usually earn it, and then lose it one time because of bad behavior.  The child's distress at losing the reward can lead to a tantrum or a spiral of increasingly bad behavior.  So it's not like there is a clear-cut difference between what actually counts as a reward and what is a punishment.

Often, parents prefer a more emotional sort of reward: "If you do xyz, I'll be very happy with you!"  That works great for Michael.  But with Marko, it's hit-or-miss ... I'm not entirely sure he gets the concept of "you do something for me ... that makes me happy ... at other times, I do things for you."  It's a bit more complicated than you might think -- it's an implicit, rather than an explicit sort of bargain.  I used to understand this problem as "Marko just doesn't care about me," but he definitely does.  He sometimes specifically asks for things he can do to make me happy.  But for whatever reason, it just isn't as obvious to him.  And while "do it to make me happy" feels nicer than "do it for a treat," both involve pressuring a child into doing something he wouldn't otherwise want to do.  Either could be manipulative, but neither has to be, exactly -- except insofar as "manipulating" your kids is sort of necessary to keep them alive and teach them skills.  We do, occasionally, have to make kids do things, yet they don't appear to be scarred for life by this.  I tend to think it's best to use both emotional and physical rewards, because life contains a lot of each -- for instance, sometimes we work for a paycheck, other times we help a friend move because it will make them happy (and perhaps help us move down the road).  I wouldn't want my kids, when they're grown up, to quit a job that they needed to survive because they weren't emotionally fulfilled by it -- but neither would I want them to tell their spouses, "Well, if you want me to do the dishes, I'm going to expect to be paid!"

So, rewards and punishments have their place.  However, all that being said, there are some dangers with external motivation.  The first one is that you take the focus off the internal rewards the child was already getting when you add in an external reward.  I felt very strongly, back when I was teaching school, that you shouldn't reward a child for learning because learning is the reward.  When a kid has been trained excessively with rewards and punishments, they seem to lose the ability to do anything without them.  You start hearing, "What do I get if I read this book?  Will I be in trouble if I don't go to this playdate?  Why should I play outside?"  The child's focus is completely taken off the intrinsic joys of the things they're doing -- things that naturally are rewarding in themselves -- and onto some other thing, which you're encouraging them to value beyond everything else.  So rewards should be for things that are difficult or unrewarding, not for everything you ever want a child to do.  I often try to make the thing itself more rewarding -- like framing a school lesson out of one of Marko's hobbies, or making a game out of a chore.

I had an interesting experience with this just recently.  I downloaded a math app that the boys really enjoy.  Each of them was having fun trying the different games within the app and pushing the limits of their ability.  Then they discovered that the coins they won at the end of each level could be redeemed for more gadgets on their "rocket ship."  Suddenly the fun was sucked out of the game itself, and they started choosing only the easy levels, so that they could earn more coins faster and unlock more doodads.  It's a computer game -- it's inherently so rewarding that they were already getting to play the game as a reward for finishing other work!  But suddenly it was seen only as a means to an end, becauase the game taught them to see it that way.

The other thing is that sometimes external rewards and punishments can push a child way too far out of their comfort zone.  It's one thing to say, "Hey, if you pick up these toys, I'll let you play Minecraft for ten minutes."  The child can weigh the possibilities and decide if it's worth it.  But some things are so valued or feared that it isn't really a choice.  Marko, for instance, feels he needs to be read to every night to go to sleep.  We originally started it as a reward for finishing dinner, but he's so attached to it that really, not being read to is a punishment for not finishing dinner.  And it's a punishment too dreadful to bear, so that on the rare occasion that he really can't finish his dinner, for one reason or another, he goes completely bananas.  There will be an hour of frantic screaming as we attempt to put him to bed without the story, and then he sobs for "one more chance" and comes and eats the food.  He'll do this even if he is sick.  So because he is so strongly motivated, externally, we can't actually trust him to protect his own body.  Kids who fear punishment or who are extremely attached to rewards will do all kinds of things to avoid losing privileges: lie, hide evidence, threaten or hurt siblings who might tell, try to handle everything without calling on an adult for help.  Marko's occasional poop accidents, I believe, are not my fault, but the fact that he refuses to tell anyone when he's had one?  That's probably on me, and the times I've blown up at him or taken away a privilege when I found out he had had an accident.  For this reason, it's best to keep consequences small -- not things so deeply valued that the child will go crazy over them.  And I always prefer a reward that can be given out piecemeal -- not "you lose your entire Minecraft turn for one tantrum" but "for every day you go without a tantrum, you'll earn five minutes of Minecraft on Saturday."  That way the child doesn't completely give up on good behavior once he's misbehaved once.

Of course you get into really toxic territory when it becomes a "rewards auction" -- the parent offers more and bigger rewards in the hopes of attaining compliance, and when the kid catches on, he learns to hold out for better prizes by behaving badly till they offer the good stuff.  If you're going to use rewards, that means you are going to have to give the child the experience of not getting the reward if they didn't earn it.  Which, yes, means sometimes accepting noncompliance.  If noncompliance isn't really an option, then you shouldn't offer a reward.  Our general habit in such situations is, "You get a reward if you are good at the store, but you don't have a choice about going to the store."  We physically bring our children where they need to be if we need to.  It rarely happens, because they know when we say "there is no choice" that there's no point in resisting, but Marko in particular will sometimes just lie on the floor and refuse to budge when there's something up ahead that he's afraid of.

So, in short, external motivation may sometimes be necessary in getting a child to do what he needs to.  But I think it should be kept to a minimum, and only used when necessary, because it does have downsides.  Other ways to motivate a child include ethics ("do this, because it is the right thing to do/will help others"), explaining the reasoning behind the request ("eat your dinner, it will help your body grow"), building good habits ("brush your teeth before bed like we always do!"), and making the desired behavior fun.  It's also important to look through the reasons the child doesn't want to do the behavior, because often it isn't what you'd expect, and once you take away the fear or confusion the child happily does the task you want.

And yes, this is true of autistic kids too.  Marko responds extremely well to explanations -- he cooperated great with his shots, for instance, because he knows how the immune system works and does not want to be sick.  He also does well with reducing the fear or upset that is keeping him from complying, because there are often very odd reasons why he objects so strongly to basic things.  For instance, sometimes one of us will say "get your shoes and socks on, it's time to go!" and Marko, instead of answering, will immediately start jumping up and down and screaming.  When we get him calmed down and talk through it, turns out he just objected to the socks, because for whatever reason he hates those, and he'll happily get ready if we just compromise on the sock thing.

And yes, sometimes we just bribe him.  But it's not the end of the world.  It's rewarding him for doing things that, for whatever reason, are extra difficult.  The adult world is full of trades, this payment for that task, and it's not bad for childhood to contain some of the same things.

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