Rethinking Gold Stars

I am currently packing to move house, which includes sorting through a whole lot of homeschooling resources and parenting books that no longer reflect my unschooling, gentle parenting approach.

In the process, I found an old, half-completed workbook and was pulling it apart for recycling when I realised it had a sheet of gold stars in it.

rethinkinggoldstars_unshackledFeeling no attachment to them, and thinking that my ten year old daughter might enjoy using them for fun, I handed her the sheet, not realising the kind of fun that would ensue! She looked quizzically at the sticker sheet, having never received a gold star from me for anything, ever. Or anyone else, for that matter. She smiled, pulled one sticker off and put it on my forehead. I did the same to her, and it quickly became a fun-fueled battle to see who could pull the stickers off the quickest, and stick them all over each others’ faces! There were a lot of giggles and it was strangely bonding. We were quite a sight to be seen by the time our sticker sheets were empty! 🙂

As we laughed and fought for sticker supremacy, my heart filled with thanks that she only saw them as sticky shiny things to play with, not as measurements of her worth or accomplishments (unless you count the fact that she definitely beat me in the sticking-stickers-on-faces department!).

I feel sad that my older two children were initially raised with gold stars, praise and rewards, attempting to get them to do what their teachers or I wanted them to do, seeking to make them compliant, “nice” children who would make me look good by their behaviour, who would make my life easier.

I am so glad that my youngest two children have lived free from that kind of parenting!

I am so glad that I no longer dangle carrots on a stick before my children’s faces.

I am so glad that I no longer stick gold stars in their books or on their charts.

I am so glad that I no longer follow behaviourist principles, rewarding the good and punishing or ignoring the bad.

One of the most helpful books that I read in the early days of my transition was Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason (affiliate link)

His other classic book on this topic is Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes

Here are some snippets:

  • What’s most striking about a positive judgment is …. that it’s a judgment.  Why do we feel the need to keep evaluating our children’s actions, turning them into “jobs” that may, if they’re lucky, be deemed “good”?
  • As with punishments, the offer of rewards can elicit temporary compliance in many cases. Unfortunately, carrots turn out to be no more effective than sticks at helping children become caring, responsible people or lifelong, self-directed learners.
  • Studies over many years have found that behavior modification programs are rarely successful at producing lasting changes in attitudes or even behavior. When the rewards stop, people usually return to the way they acted before the program began. More disturbingly, researchers have recently discovered that children whose parents make frequent use of rewards tend to be less generous than their peers (Fabes et al., 1989; Grusec, 1991; Kohn 1990).
  • A child promised a treat for learning or acting responsibly has been given every reason to stop doing so when there is no longer a reward to be gained.
  • Research and logic suggest that punishment and rewards are not really opposites, but two sides of the same coin. Both strategies amount to ways of trying to manipulate someone’s behavior–in one case, prompting the question, “What do they want me to do, and what happens to me if I don’t do it?”, and in the other instance, leading a child to ask, “What do they want me to do, and what do I get for doing it?” Neither strategy helps children to grapple with the question, “What kind of person do I want to be?”
  • Rewards are no more helpful at enhancing achievement than they are at fostering good values. At least two dozen studies have shown that people expecting to receive a reward for completing a task (or for doing it successfully) simply do not perform as well as those who expect nothing (Kohn, 1993). This effect is robust for young children, older children, and adults; for males and females; for rewards of all kinds; and for tasks ranging from memorizing facts to designing collages to solving problems. In general, the more cognitive sophistication and open-ended thinking that is required for a task, the worse people tend to do when they have been led to perform that task for a reward.
  • The data suggests that the more we want children to want to do something, the more counterproductive it will be to reward them for doing it.

If you ask me, relationships have a FAR greater value than compliance. Gold stars may result in an initial increase in the desired behaviour, but the behaviour will often fade even quicker than the shiny star.

This reminds me of one of our treasured children’s picture books from when my kids were younger. It is called You Are Special (by Max Lucado). I even found a video of it!

I am much more interested in equipping my children with a feeling of intrinsic self-worth, irrespective of external recognition or reward. Sometimes this means that they will choose something I wish they wouldn’t; sometimes it means they will act in a way that can cause me embarrassment, but I love and accept them as they are, warts and all, and I choose to place more value on that, than on what other people think. If my children learn something new, the learning is its own reward. They don’t need a gold star to tell them they did a “good job” of learning it! If they choose to behave a certain way, or have a particular attitude, I want it to be because that is their personal choice, and they gain authentic value in making that choice because it is what they want to do, rather than doing something to get recognition or reward from me or someone else.

…… And regarding gold stars? Little does my daughter realise that I have lots and lots more gold stars she doesn’t know about, just ready and waiting to decorate her face with when she’s least expecting it! I mean, what else am I supposed to do with them? 🙂


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