Reward, recognition and punishment in childhood

Ready for the real-world? (Photo by Honey Yanibel Minaya Cruz on Unsplash)

I recently enjoyed a rare and candid conversation with my 15-year-old daughter during which she shared what she felt life was like for kids today. The rarity of such discussions isn’t for want of me trying to understand her perspective. Instead it’s down to her usual teenage-reluctance to enter into more than a begrudging monosyllabic-exchange of words on most subjects.

Whatever prompted her to open up to me I am grateful for the moment. The word that she used most often, was pressure.

I can understand where she’s coming from.

It’s the pressure to be popular, to fit-in and to feel good-enough when compared to those around you, regardless of whether it’s a healthy and positive comparison to make. These days we don’t just feel a pressure to measure up against those we know in real life, but also against the carefully-crafted and curated image they present of themselves online. Then there are the celebrities and influencers whose perfect lives and online-personas are thrust upon us via smartphones and social networks as further benchmarks against-which to assess our lives.

It’s the pressure from teachers in school who want to turn their pupils out as the best-prepared citizens that they can. Schools are measured against the grades achieved by their pupils and this manifests in pressure for the teachers to teach well, and for the students in turn to deliver the results from tests.

It’s the pressure that’s brought about by parents who recognise how tough and relentlessly competitive life in the world of work can be. Correspondingly, kids are reminded of the need to gain any and all advantages for their future-selves, by earning the best qualifications possible at all stages in the process of education.

I can understand that pressure features highly in the lives of our kids. I sympathise and I feel for them for I know it’s not pleasant at times. That said, I don’t think it’s radically different now than it ever was (putting aside the social pressures which have been magnified by the omnipresent smartphones and the social networks they serve up).

My biggest worry is that some of the ways that schools and parents approach reward, recognition and punishment of kids, are actually stripping away their ability to deal with the pressure and stress that comes hand-in-glove with modern-life. More than ever our kids need to be resilient, self-reliant and determined to survive in the modern world. I worry that this isn’t being reinforced enough in how they’re raised and educated.

I should emphasise before I go on, that I’m full of awe and admiration for those who devote themselves to the calling of teaching our young-people. I can only imagine the challenges inherent to capturing the attentions of 20 or 30 kids of any age, particularly teens or pre-teens, all while trying to impart the knowledge and skills to equip them for the modern world. Through raising (or playing a significant part in raising) four kids, I’m also painfully aware of the wide and varied demands that being a parent entails.

My purpose in writing this, isn’t to appear dismissive of the education system or those who work within it. I also don’t want to appear insensitive or uncaring regarding the need for each and every child to be given the best support, encouragement and opportunities that can be afforded them. My opinions and commentary in this piece are rooted in the desire for our kids to be as prepared as they can be for the realities of life.

Here are just a few of the reservations I have about modern education and how we’re raising our kids today. These largely stem from practices that seem to exist in schools regarding how kids are incentivised and punished, messages which all too often seem to get reinforced at home as well.

1) There is no certificate awarded in life for just showing-up.

At one time or another, each of my kids has received a certificate for achieving 100% attendance during a school term or semester. I understand that schools are measured on attendance levels, and that for kids from less supportive families, as big a battle as getting them to earn qualifications is in getting them to attend school in the first place. That said, when such ‘achievements’ are rewarded universally, and given public recognition with certificates, it teaches a lesson that isn’t mirrored later in adult life.

I don’t know of anyone whose job specification is met purely by them turning in to work for their allotted 8 hours each day. Any job with meaning and purpose doesn’t require that you’re just there. Instead it demands that you’re doing what’s expected of you, to the best of your ability and taking an interest in the quality of what you do. Anyone who wants to grow, to achieve more, and to progress needs to be doing more than the bare minimum, attempting to exceed expectations and to stretch themselves beyond what’s expected. This demands an acceptance that merely being there isn’t going to cut-it.

I recognise that good schools and inspirational teachers will reward kids who go the extra-mile too, but I wonder if we’ve shifted expectations too low where kids are rewarded merely for showing up in the first place?

2) You generally have to earn your bonuses and rewards.

Many schools now seem to utilise merit and demerit points, and these are tracked as a means of encouraging long-term good behaviour. They are also used for exerting more significant consequences for prolonged and sustained bad behaviour. I fully agree with the demerit angle, and this tallies pretty well with the system of warnings that most employers utilise for the discouragement of negative behaviours in employees. Such behaviours may include misconduct, unauthorised absence and a general lack of commitment or rigour in their work. I also agree with the issuing of merit points for acts and deeds that are above and beyond what is expected.

What I take issue with is the fact that many of the recognition points that are handed out to my kids and their peers these days, seem to be for things that simply equate to ‘doing their job’.

Deserving employees get bonuses when the actions that they’ve taken go over and above what they’re paid their salary or their day-rate to deliver. It’s the special projects, the target-busting growth and the big sales that deserve the additional recognition. In my opinion, the same should be mirrored in school too, and yet I get notified of reward points awarded for turning in homework on time, for contributing to class discussions and for assisting classmates. Such things are to be encouraged, but this should be by expectation and the maintenance of high-standards at school and at home, rather than via bribery through the dangling of rewards. More stick and less-carrot is what’s needed!

On your marks… (Photo by Goh Rhy Yan on Unsplash)

3) Competition is ruthless and rife

There’s long seemed to have been a tendency away from encouraging competition in schools. This is exemplified in the awarding of the apocryphal 8th place ribbon in recognition of every competitor in a running race. I can understand that once again, schools need to cater to each and every participant, to encourage them all to have something to strive for. Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel that this is another way in which school fails to prepare kids for the realities and pressure of life in the real world by discouraging the belief that extraordinary efforts will receive proportionate rewards.

Life is a constant and ruthless competition for recognition and progress. For every worthwhile job there are many more applicants than interviewees and many more interviewees than those who earn the position. In every organisation, there’s an underlying battle for status, for progression and for air-time to have views and achievements recognised. There is seldom any prize for 2nd place, let-alone 8th, and to labour under any other belief is to be deluded to reality.

Competition is a good thing, and to embrace it as a source of inspiration to do more, to be more and to achieve more can be an empowering thing. To ignore it, to refuse to participate in it or to denounce the situation as unfair because you can’t or won’t ‘get in the game’ will have lasting consequences for what you can achieve. Kids need to learn this, as harsh a lesson as it is, and I worry that schools are side-stepping and preventing kids from learning. Parents who reinforce this view are also failing to prepare the kids as well as they might.

4) Survival of the fittest is a real thing

Streaming and sorting of people by results and accomplishments exists. It is a real thing. There are fast-paths and succession planning and short-cuts to the top for those whose talent or diligence is recognised. There is nothing wrong with nurturing those who are willing and able to strive for the best, and incentivising others to push themselves to reach this level too. Taking those who are willing to work harder and to apply themselves with vigour and dedication to the cause, and to their own personal advancement, and supporting them to achieve all they can, as quickly as possible is how talent and motivation are fostered and grown in the real world.

As my kids have progressed through education, I’ve noticed a progressive trend away from streaming and separating out the subsets of the most talented and intelligent kids on fast-paths to try and maximise their achievements. This seems to be done as a means of levelling the playing field for the kids who aren’t able to participate in such groups. It also seems to be a means of the schools protecting their overall statistics, returning a universally higher average result, at the expense of the high-end outliers. That’s fine, but it doesn’t necessarily help our kids learn that if you’re content to run with the herd, or even that you don’t have any option other than to run at the pace of the slowest member, then that will dictate your pace for life. Instead, kids should be learning that if they’re willing to push themselves, to specialise and to work as hard as they can, then their efforts should be rewarded.

Summing up

There’s a line in the excellent Pixar movie, The Incredibles where the irrepressible and speedy son Dash sums things up pretty well in dialogue with his mother:

“Everyone’s special Dash” says Helen, the super-mom.
“which is another way of saying no-one is” retorts Dash.
The Parr family - The Incredibles (Credit: Pixar/Press)

I worry that too many of the tactics and practices that are brought to bear in raising and educating our kids, have the unintended side-effect of encouraging mediocrity and raising expectations of how much reward and recognition can be attained through merely doing ‘just enough’. This is not representative of the real world, and it’s not what I believe we should be preparing our kids for.

I am extremely grateful for the education that each of my kids is receiving and am full of admiration and appreciation for those who’ve been instrumental in teaching them. I’m also grateful that my kids have for the most part been compliant and diligent in their approach to school which means that things such as non-attendance haven’t been a factor to overcome.

What I also recognise is that education isn’t just something that we as parents can outsource to schools without taking significant ownership and accountability ourselves. It’s a responsibility that we all share as teachers, parents and members of society-alike. What I feel we’re losing sight of at times, is that school needs to be a means of preparing our kids for real-life rather than a place where they go to learn facts, and later qualifications by reciting those facts back under exam conditions.

Our kids need to learn that the world isn’t a place where you get plaudits and praise merely for showing up and doing the bare minimum. Progress and fulfilment isn’t assured merely by taking part. Riches, fame and success aren’t birth-rights. Instead, life is a process that rewards those who are hardworking and diligent, and at best, ignores, or at worst, punishes those who don’t play the game with all their resources and all their determination.


Toby Hazlewood is a writer, parent, husband, project manager, entrepreneur and in his spare time, a cycling enthusiast.

As founder of the Kintsugi-Life movement, he advocates treating times of hardship, challenge and adversity as an opportunity not just to survive or recover, but as a prompt to grow and strengthen, equipping ourselves to live a better, more fulfilled and successful life.

You can learn more about Kintsugi Life and receive a free video overview describing the Kintsugi Life concept, here.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by +436,678 people.

Subscribe to receive our top stories here.