On Praise and 'Bribes': What the New York Times Got Right (and What It Didn't)

Children need challenges and increased expectations as they age, but change can be scary, and offering rewards -- coupled with choice and a sense of autonomy -- helps make their introduction smoother.
01/28/2013 12:31 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2013

I'd like to weigh in on the debate sparked by "Train a Parent, Spare a Child," Bruce Feiler's recent New York Times article. Moms in the media have taken issue with the article's conclusion that it's almost never a good idea to bribe children to prompt good behavior.

Bribery is the only way to get my kids to do unpleasant tasks like tidying up, says the New York Times' KJ Dell'Antonia. Sometimes I need quick, short-term solutions for unexpected problems, says Slate's Alison Benedikt.

Who's right: the moms or the researchers? My decades of experience as a nanny and parenting consultant have given me the opportunity to see parenting from both of their perspectives, and I believe they're both missing some key points. As with the parable of the blind men and the elephant, the correct approach lies in a synthesis of the two.

Here's what Feiler gets right:

His title. I couldn't agree more that the most important thing a parent can do is train him or herself. We take classes to learn about math, cooking and dance, so why should parents be expected to intuit something vastly more difficult -- caring for a child? Recent studies show that training parents can result in significantly better outcomes for everyone, including improved mental, physical and social health for children over the long-term. I applaud Feiler for encouraging discussion of the best possible childcare techniques.

His suggestion that praise is the most effective training strategy. When children are learning a new skill, constructive praise is the best tool you've got for cheering them on and reinforcing their success. As with any powerful instrument, however, it's best to be judicious with praise. For good behavior that meets established expectations, simple, specific acknowledgment is the way to go. If your child minds his manners at supper, for example, a simple "thank you for sitting so nicely at the table" reaffirms that he's on the right track without suggesting that you expected anything less.

"If-Then" to "Now-That." In Feiler's article, Daniel Pink suggested moving from an if-then reward model ("if you finish your homework before dinner, you can watch TV") to a now-that model ("Great job mowing the lawn without being asked! Since you finished early, shall we go out for dessert?"). This is different than a reward because it helps children see the usefulness of good behavior -- they have more time to enjoy life afterward.

The Reward of Autonomy. Like all human beings, children crave dignity, autonomy and independence. Perhaps the best piece of advice in the article is that we give our children choices when possible (taking care not to overwhelm them with a glut of options).

I have used this strategy with children of all ages. For example, one family I know had a little girl who threw fits over dressing in the morning. When I started working for them, her parents had been starting each day with the same epic battle, and were at their wits' end. So, we established a new routine: each night, she chose one of two outfits for the next day and laid it out. Choosing tomorrow's outfit became a pleasant part of bedtime, and she and her parents could begin each day on a positive note.

All of the above is great advice, but there's some bruised fruit mixed in Feiler's barrel. Here's where the moms have won the day, in my opinion:

There is nothing wrong with the words "should," "must" and "have to." The article advises avoiding "controlling" words like "should," "must" and "have to," because "all of those things that convey to them you're a big person trying to push around a little person." I disagree. Those words are clear and authoritative, and sometimes, that's necessary with children. There's nothing wrong with explaining, "You must hold Daddy's hand when crossing the street, or else you could get hit by a car."

Dinner cannot always be a game.
Playing games to encourage children to eat is a nice idea, and I've certainly engaged in my fair share of "Here comes the plane -- whoosh -- open wide!" But who has the energy to do that every day? Dr. Kazdin's suggestion to set up an escalating vegetable-eating competition between children sounds impractical -- before you know it, you'll be performing cartwheels for him to eat carrots, or push-ups for peas! You may laugh, but some people go to extremes to get their children to eat.

Instead, like any other situation where expectations are established and communicated, mealtime should be about choices and consequences. Set the expectation that this is dinner, it's time to sit and eat, and if your child chooses not to, there's nothing else until the next mealtime.

Praise and rewards do not create dependency, as the psychologists in the article allege. I have worked with many children over the years, but I've never met a ten-year-old who expects praise for being toilet trained, or a college student who wants a sweetie for making his bed.

Children need challenges and increased expectations as they age, but change can be scary, and offering rewards -- coupled with choice and a sense of autonomy -- helps make their introduction smoother. If your child is working toward a particular skill or behavior, feel free to use praise, treats or special activities to create positive associations with mastering the new challenge.

However, refrain from offering a constant, rote pat on the back. Research shows that just as grade inflation rewards children with ever-higher marks despite their studying fewer hours, praise inflation can lower effort and achievement all around (especially praise that labels the child rather than the behavior, like "you are such a good girl" or "you're so smart!"). Acknowledge good behavior with specific, positive, matter-of-fact language, and save the more effusive tone for praising real effort and advancement.

While I didn't agree with everything in the article, it did open up a great conversation between parents, researchers and childcare professionals. In that respect, it's an absolutely fantastic piece, and I'm grateful to Mr. Feiler for publishing it.