Wednesday, September 30, 2009


When I was in elementary school, if you were naughty you went to the principal's office. What happened there I never knew, because I was never naughty. Well, I never got caught being naughty, anyway. Ask my brother. While you're at it, ask him what went on in the principal's office.

Anyway, children today still get sent to the principal's office, but, like almost everything else about elementary school, the process has gotten significantly more complicated in the intervening 20 (OK, 30) years. At Old Forge Elementary, for example, they have the stoplight system. Here's how it works: each child has a clothespin with his or her name on it, and in the classroom there is a big poster of something resembling a large traffic light. All the children (clothespins) start the day on green. When a child is naughty, he (his clothespin) moves to yellow. If he shapes up, he moves back to green; if not, he stays on yellow. If he gets worse, he moves to red. If he punches the teacher in the nose, he goes to the principal's office. Or something like that.

At the end of the day, the teacher puts a stamp in each child's Behavior Folder (yep). The color of the stamp corresponds to the color on which the child (clothespin) ended the day. Regardless of the color of the stamp, the child's parent must sign the BF each night to show that she has seen the stamp. At the end of the week, children who got green stamps all week get to choose from the Prize Box (yep). The Prize Box is stocked with all manner of rejected Happy Meal toys, all of which are highly coveted by my non-Happy-Meal-eating children.

I told you. Complicated.

However, I'm pretty used to this by now. The kids come home, dump their backpacks in the kitchen, and make for the snacks. I unload the backpacks, sort out the multitude of forms, homework, and advertisements for soccer teams, and sign the BF. At this point, if I may say so, I could do it with my eyes closed. And apparently that's just about what I was doing, until one day two weeks ago. I was mid-sort, mid-snack negotiation, just lowering the pen to sign Ben's BF, when I stopped. Looked. Frowned. Squinted. What WAS that? It didn't look like it usually did.

It was a yellow stamp. I'd never seen one before.


There was a second yellow that week, and two more last week. This means that in addition to being subjected to (presumably) embarrassment in front of his peers and (definitely) interrogation by his parents, Ben did not get to choose a prize either week. This was definitely a Big Deal. And, indeed, this week he has all green stamps and is excited that he will get to choose a prize. So it works, right? Not so fast.

Here's the thing: this kind of behavior modification program relies heavily, perhaps exclusively, on extrinsic motivation. In other words, the kid is behaving because of what he gets, or doesn't get, from the outside world as a result. Research shows that this works great on little kids, which is undoubtedly why it's so popular in places where there are a lot of kids to control (like elementary schools). The problem is that it stops working as kids get older and, worse, teaches them that they deserve to be rewarded for doing the right thing.

If the Stoplight/Behavior Folder/Prize Box setup were the only one of its kind at Old Forge, I could probably overlook it. But it's not. Indeed, far from it. In addition to the BF there is the BUG (Being Unusually Good) award, in which a student who is especially kind to another student gets a lollipop and a certificate. The Golden Table award, in which a student who exhibits "good character" (the subject of a whole other post, let me assure you) gets to eat lunch on the cafeteria stage while wearing a medal. The Leopard Dollar system, in which students earn pretend money for doing things like their homework. Their homework! The Perfect Attendance award, in which a student with perfect attendance in a given month gets a certificate, some Leopard Dollars, and an invitation to an ice cream party. I could go on.

The trouble with all this is that it teaches kids that they should expect to be materially rewarded for doing the right thing, and that, if they are not, there is really no reason to do it. Even worse, it makes whatever provides a material reward appear to be the right thing to do. Can you think of any examples of behavior governed by that kind of skewed code of ethics in our recent history? Gee, let me think.

I'm not saying that the global financial crisis is Old Forge elementary school's fault. At least, not exactly. But I am saying that raising kids who respond primarily to extrinsic motivators is a bad idea. Really bad. Instead of, "here's your prize!" how about, "you should be really proud of yourself for behaving so well!" Or instead of, "here's your perfect attendance certificate," how about, "I'll bet you learned a lot this month since you were in school every day." Or instead of, "have a lollipop for being so nice!" how about, "doesn't it make you feel good when you help someone else?" No Happy Meal toys required.