A Personal View on the Punishment Versus Rewards Debate


Lifespan Development and Learning

In the education and parenting fields, there is often a debate whether to use punishments or rewards to motivate students and influence behavior. There are supporters of both methods and there are people who believe that neither punishments nor rewards should be used to encourage learning. As each individual holds his or her own beliefs about the appropriate use of these tools in learning, it is important to spend some time considering the debate.

As a child in Trinidad, I remember that fear of punishment in school was a great motivator for my good behavior and desire to perform better academically. I also remember, however, that not everyone else in my school had the same response to punishment. My friend, for example, seemed to love getting in trouble and often went home with welts from the bamboo cane. What irked my teachers even more was that he was also one of the top students in the class. For me, the threat of punishment was a form of aversive stimuli and was enough to cause me to behave a certain learned accepted way.

My elementary school also used a system of group punishment and reward. All students were randomly assigned to one of six school-wide groups when they enrolled; on different weeks, different groups were responsible for things like tending the garden, keeping the campus clean, or re-shelving library books. Also, each group was given an overall tally for personal hygiene which included clean pressed uniforms, combed tidy hair, and neatly trimmed dirt-free fingernails. Much of the regulation we engaged in was a sort of self regulation for the benefit of fitting in with the group. Based on the group’s overall score, group members would be given different things like hardcover story books, a week off of yard-duty, or honorary certificates of recognition at school-wide events like sports-day. Poorly scoring groups, conversely, were “punished” with extra duties. Again, this provided an incentive for group members to improve their individual performance or risk provoking the anger of the other group members for being punished for one person’s actions. Results similar to these were found in a 1984 study which concluded that “both rewards and punishments have been found to be effective influence modes in appropriate [group] settings, but using rewards to induce compliance seems to have no or only positive side effects, while using punishments often has the negative side effect of provoking face-saving retaliation” (Oliver, 127).

Punishment was also present in the home in different forms-usually something like a spanking, going to bed without a bedtime story, or not getting to watch Saturday cartoons. Overall, however, I do not have any strong recollections of being punished. This is not to say that they did not affect me; I know they affected me because over time I modified my behavior based on what I was getting punished for. Still, I was fortunate to not have grown up in a home where a common phrase was “This hurts me more than it hurts you.”

At home, rewards often came in a way that is probably better classified as encouragement. A lot of my successes were greeted with phrases like “Wow! That is great! Why don’t you try doing this next?” So, for example, when I came home from school excited that my first attempt at hydroponics had been successful, my father suggested I get some different plant seeds from my grandmother and try growing them in a little patch of our back yard. I do not remember too many rewards which came in the form of either physical things like toys or treats, or as perks like getting to stay up past bedtime or not having to wash dishes; much of this probably stemmed from the strained financial situation of growing up in a small developing country. However, by the time my family had moved to the United States, I had developed a habit of looking at each accomplishment as one small step towards something better. Furthermore, it was clear to me that while I had the emotional support of my family, I was ultimately the person responsible for my advancements. According to Manning and Butcher, (2003) using encouragement instead of praise-a form of intangible reward-encourages the development of confidence and self-esteem; the use of praise alone may cause children to develop a dependence relationship between praise and the value of their work.

In a sense, that is what Alfie Kohn referred to in an interview when he proposed that rewards are just as damaging to ones motivation to learn as are punishments. Both punishments and rewards stifle the motivation to learn (Brandt, 1995). Taking a personal example, when I moved to the United States, I became very interested in playing music. If my mother had decided that an appropriate punishment for me would be taking my guitar away from me, she would be stifling my natural motivation to learn to play music better. Additionally, if the only way I would get to play my guitar was as a reward for having done my work or chores, eventually I could just decide that the prerequisite work was not worth it to me and I could become disinterested in playing my guitar. Instead, my mother encouraged me to play music-even offering to pay for music lessons. Interestingly, I refused the music lessons, as my level of interest was just as a personal hobby rather than a professional priority. When reading the interview with Kohn, one thing he said was “A lot of people have had the experience of having done something just because they loved it until they started to get paid for doing it, after which they wouldn’t dream of doing it again without getting paid. The phenomenon whereby extrinsic motivators cause intrinsic motivation to evaporate is not on the tips of our tongues, but it’s not that far from consciousness, either” (Brandt, 1995; ¶ 26). While going to guitar lessons is not the same as getting paid, in my mind attending guitar lessons would make playing the guitar more like “work” and I would be stifling my natural curiosity to learn the guitar on my own.

Reviewing the literature and my personal history, I still cannot say that I disapprove of the use of rewards. Rather, I think that rewards should be carefully designed to promote personal motivation. Too often, rewards are used inappropriately-for example upon completion of personal duties-leading children to expect rewards at the wrong times. Rewards should be offered very selectively, and should not be limited to success; in fact, sometimes effort is more important than success (Robb, 2003; Rozycki, 1999). I clearly remember getting measles in second grade, and consequently missing weeks of school and performing very poorly on my exams when I returned. My class rank dropped from third to twentieth, and I was terrified that I would be punished when I took my report book home. Instead, I found that my parents were very understanding and supportive-they even gave me a tangible reward (ice-cream, one of my favorite treats!)-and they simply encouraged me to keep my motivation up; very shortly, I was able to return to my original level of performance. In my mind, this was a perfect example of reward being used appropriately and in conjunction with encouragement. When rewards can truly empower the recipient, it should most certainly be used.


  • Brandt, R. (1995, September). Punished by rewards: An interview with Alfie Kohn. Educational Leadership, 53(1).
  • Manning, M. L. & Bucher, K. T. (2003). Classroom management: Models, applications, and cases. Upper Saddle River, NJ; Columbus, OH: Merrill Prentice Hall.
  • Oliver, P. (1984). Rewards and punishments as selective incentives: An apex game. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 28(1), 123-148.
  • Robb, M. (2003). Rewards and punishments: A continuing debate. Retrieved March 1, 2006 from http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/social_emotional_learning/103854
  • Rozycki, E. G. (1999). Rewards, reinforcers and voluntary behavior. Retrieved March 1, 2006 from http://www.newfoundations.com/EGR/RewRein.html

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