Exploring Optimum Learning Relationships
A virtual class based on
Magical Parent - Magical Child
by Michael Mendizza and Joseph Chilton Pearce
Lesson 7 - Punishments & Rewards

It is our ideation that shapes our children. We provide an enriched environment, visual, aural, tactile stimuli to furnish the best supply of raw materials, but our own background determines what we decide makes up a “rich environment.” And then, quite naturally, we expect our children to shape this material into a pattern verifying our commitments. We look for agreement.

Crack in the Cosmic Egg

The mind-brain is designed for astonishing capacities, but its development is based on the infant and child constructing a knowledge of the world as it actually is. Children are unable to construct this foundation because we unknowingly inflict on them an anxiety-conditioned view of the world (as it was unknowingly inflicted on us.) Childhood is a battleground between the biological plan’s intent, which drives the child from within, and our anxious intentions, pressing the child from without.

Magical Child

In lesson six we continued our exploration of play ages and stages. In lesson seven we dig much deeper into the adult’s agenda and the conflict it creates. Our proposal it that children are social by nature. They learn from example much more than from instruction, with its implied punishments and rewards. When we use outward force to control a child’s behavior, the model-state is force and control, not the behavior or content we are trying to encourage. The vast majority of what we call parenting, teaching and coaching is accomplished through example, with its implied state, but with various forms of behavior modification techniques, supported by rewards and punishments. In this lesson we will explore why attempts at external behavior modification consistently fail to deliver the results found in Optimum Learning Relationships.

Rewards & Punishments
Like love, play is its own reward and not amenable to any form of inner or outer coercion. Remember Mama’s smile when she gave us those red cups, her bribe to stop banging on the cupboard door? She was rewarding us for not doing something. Her intent behind the smile was to control or modify our behavior. The free, open, and complete involvement in our primary relationship, which a moment ago was a door and hinge, was suddenly replaced by expectation and authority. We discover very early that conforming to predetermined patterns wins rewards from outside authorities. And implied in every reward is the threat we will, in one way or another, be punished if we don’t conform. Primary learning is transformed into conditioning through use of rewards and punishments.

Primary learning is open, free from failure, playful, completely absorbing, and self-rewarding. Primary learning is psychologically safe. It requires no defense. The rewards for participating in the experience are intrinsic, internal, and self generated.

Conditioned learning, and what we generally call schooling, imply an external authority, rewards, and potential failure. The goal of conditioning - repetition of predetermined patterns of behavior - is accomplished through the use of external punishments and rewards. Conditioned learning always implies some degree of self-defense. Defensive learning is less efficient than primary learning. The state of potential for failure - not conforming, not obeying, disappointing, frustrating, or enraging the authority - becomes an integral part of the learning experience. Optimum Learning Relationships, the state of flow or being in the Zone are primary experiences. They need no rewards. Complete engagement in the relationship or activity is its own reward.

For most, parenting, education, and business are synonymous with external control maintained with rewards and punishments. The authority, be it mom, dad, caretaker, teacher, coach or instructor, manager or CEO, often justifies and defends controlling behavior by claiming that it’s for the child’s or employee’s own good. Research suggests other motives.

Our sociability is instinctual and arises spontaneously of its own. Culture is intellectual, arbitrary, and must be induced, injected or enforced. Sociability is learning in its most complete form and breeds reflective thought. Enculturation is conditioning and enhancement of automatic reflexes. A society is made of spontaneous nurturing and love while culture is subtly hated, rebelled against sooner or later, subtly or flagrantly, if not in the terrible two’s then in the terrible teens. And such rebellions are forcibly put down through pain, fear, guilt and shame, or the rebel simply put away out of sight.

The Biology of Transcendence
Journal 7.1
Apply the above quote from The Biology of Transcendence first to the way you were raised (socialized and enculturated) and second, to the way you respond to children. What do you see?

Assumptions about rewards and punishments run deep. They surround us, and are part of our relationships, interwoven in our families, schools, churches, and cherished institutions. No wonder they are so difficult to see. And even more difficult to break free from. Alfie Kohn, in his book Punished by Rewards, explores the myth of rewards most of us live by and impose so freely and frequently on our children.

Behind the practice of presenting a colorful dinosaur sticker to a first grader who stays silent on command is a theory that embodies distinct assumptions about the nature of knowledge, the possibility of choice, and what it means to be a human being...

It is not the bubble gum itself that is the problem, nor the money, nor the love and attention. The rewards themselves are in some cases innocuous and in other cases indispensable. What concerns me is the practice of using these things as rewards. To take what people want or need and offer it on a contingent basis in order to control how they act - this is where the trouble lies. Our attention is properly focused, in other words, not on “that” (the thing desired) but on the requirement that one must do this in order to get that. Rewarding people for their compliance is not “the way the world works,” as many insist. It is not a fundamental law of human nature.

It is but one way of thinking and speaking, of organizing our experience and dealing with others. It may seem natural to us, but it actually reflects a particular ideology that can be questioned. And I believe it is long past time for us to do so.

Alfie Kohn
Punished by Rewards

Rewards are deceptive. We think we are improving spelling, getting the trash taken out, solving a problem, or correcting some form of inappropriate behavior, when the true goal of rewards and punishments is control. And who is most often the beneficiary of control? The controller! To determine the lasting effectiveness of our punishments and rewards we must ask two questions: one, was there a lasting change in behavior and two, was the change brought about for the appropriate reason?

Journal 7.2
List three to five ways in which you use or have used rewards and punishments to encourage your child to behave “the right” way, and next to each apply the two questions noted above. How effective were your rewards and punishments when both questions are factored?

In the short term we can get people to do all sorts of things they might not normally do by providing incentives. Research shows that rewards don’t bring about the lasting changes we are hoping for. The negative impact of coercion isn’t immediately apparent, however. As a result of our confusion we continue using rewards; the more we use them the more they seem to be needed. Rewards and punishments are so common, so accepted, and so normal, it seems strange to question them. Most people would be offended to hear that rewards are fundamentally dehumanizing. Passing out praise, M&Ms, gold stars, stickers, bonuses, or vacations seems so natural, so civilized. Coercion seems to work well with pets, why not with our children and employees, or so the logic goes.

Repeatedly promising rewards for certain behaviors implies that children and adults would not choose to act responsibly, do good work, love to learn, or perform at extraordinary levels on their own. Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s extensive research into the psychology of optimal experience published in the book Flow contradicts this assumption:

The key element in optimal experience is that it is an end in itself… it is a self-contained activity, one that is not done with the expectation of some future benefit, the doing itself is the reward. When experience is intrinsically rewarding, life is justified in the present, instead of being held hostage to a hypothetical future gain… The solution is to gradually become free of societal rewards and learn how to substitute for them rewards that are under one’s own powers.

Mihaly Csikszentmihaly
Play Explorer, Author: Flow, the Psychology of Optimal Experience

Kohn points out that one person controlling another implies unequal status:

If rewards not only reflect differences in power but also contribute to them, it should not be surprising that their use may benefit the more powerful party - that is, the rewarder. This point would seem almost too obvious to bother mentioning except for the fact that, in practice, rewards are typically justified as being in the interest of the individual receiving them. We claim to reinforce people to teach them things they need to be taught. But one writer, after ticking off the specific objectives of behavior modification programs, asks, “In whose interest is it for a prisoner, a student, or a patient to be less complaining, more attentive, submissive, and willing to work?” Who really benefits when a child quiets down and sits still?

Alfie Kohn
Punished by Rewards

Kohn and Csikszentmihaly agree that rewards bolster the traditional order of things. “To de-emphasize conventional rewards threatens the existing power structure,” be it in the family, classroom, or on the job. Those in control like being in control. Take away authority and control and most parents get nervous. It’s difficult for many teachers to imagine replacing authority with mutual respect and deep communication. It takes too much time and attention. Frequent use and widespread acceptance of punishments and rewards mask their failure to bring about lasting change. Kohn lists five reasons why rewards have no place in optimum learning relationships:

Journal 7.3
Imagine not being able to resort to rewards or punishments to raise or to educate a child. What would you do?
1. Rewards Punish:

Controlling by seduction (rewards) is every bit as controlling as control by threat (punishment). Both represent a psychological model that conceives of motivation in terms of behavior modification.

2. Rewards Rupture Relationships:

The ability to reward and punish implies authority, power, and control. One person has the power, the other doesn’t. This imbalance prevents the positive relationships that promote optimal learning and performance.

3. Rewards Ignore Reasons:

Rewards draw attention away from root causes. The rewarder doesn’t have to deal with the source of the trouble.

4. Rewards Discourage Risk-Taking:

Rewards undermine creativity and innovation. They are the enemies of exploration. When rewards are offered, people do exactly what is necessary to get the prize and nothing more.

5. External Rewards Reduce Internal Motivation:

Rewards tend to make people dependent on external, rather than self-generated incentives, and change how we feel about activities we may naturally enjoy. “A single onetime reward for doing something you used to enjoy can kill your interest in it for weeks.”

Adults take control when they organize child’s play. Adults become the authority. Praise and blame point the way down predetermined paths. Independent thinking, authentic interest, innate curiosity, and true creativity are often out-of-bounds. The ratio of “no” to “yes” is seventeen to one in favor of “no.” Often the more intelligent and adventuresome the child, the more extreme the pressure to conform.

To be free of guilt and at one with the universal system is to be free of anxiety and you can threaten and control man only through his anxiety. So the forces of social-political control must always induce and maintain that anxiety.

Bond of Power

It’s All About Control

Children learn very early to mold themselves in ways they hope will win the approval of mom, dad, and mentors. They attempt to control the controllers by pleasing, doing the expected, conforming to safe patterns. The good baby is the quiet baby. The over-achiever is looked upon as the well-socialized child, the one most likely to succeed. Failing to win the approval, some children rebel. Others withdraw.

Journal 7.4
How effective would our attempts to control/educate children be if they really did not care what others think about them? How different would our children be if they did not have a self-image to be manipulated with?

With increasingly frequency, those who don’t color between the lines, those who are restless in school and not so easy to control, are diagnosed with attention disorders and medicated. The widespread use of prescription drugs by preschool-age children for mental and emotional disorders has no historical precedent.

Treating attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has become a multibillion-dollar industry. Drug companies are launching brand-name ads for ADHD drugs in women’s magazines and on network television. These ads break a thirty-year-old agreement between the international community and the pharmaceutical industry not to market controlled drugs directly to consumers. Between May or 2000 and May of 2001, more than 20.5 million prescriptions were written for ADHD drugs, up 37 percent over the past five years. Stimulants used to treat ADHD are classified by the Drug Enforcement Agency as Schedule II drugs, the most highly addictive drugs that are still legal. ADHD drugs are among today’s most frequently stolen prescriptions and most-abused legal drugs. In some U.S. communities, 20 percent of children, beginning with preschoolers, are taking stimulants. Most abusers, DEA officials say, are kids. Most dealers are kids who are prescribed the drugs to treat ADHD. Direct-to-consumer marketing by drug companies in popular media create strong pressure to drug children. We forget that drug pushers are drug pushers. What do we expect? The real issue is control.

A cover story in Time magazine described children who are out of control. Read between the lines and we discover that parents are out of control with their use of rewards and punishments, contests, grades, and competition strategies. The more rewards are used, the less effective they become. What goes around comes around. The controlled eventually become the controllers.

As of this writing (1996-2001), failure of nurturing has led to an average of eighteen children per day in the United States struck by bullets from other children’s guns. Six thousand a year die from those wounds. The rising inability of our young people to modify primitive impulses and behaviors has become virtually a national security matter and we can’t seem to build prisons fast enough. We have thirteen- and fourteen-year-old children, boys and girls, in penitentiaries. Sixteen-year-old girls have babies in prison under horrifying, bestial conditions. To say the least, our “socializing” tactics are working poorly for our wounded society.

The Biology of Transcendence

Our Contest Culture
We have turned everything into a contest. Schools are based on comparison - tests and grades. In business our worth is measured by the bottom line. My child learned to walk sooner than yours. My grade point average is higher than yours. Children discover very early that the score is very important. How they feel about themselves is based most often on performance - on the score. Behind our contests and comparisons is a strong belief that the important things in life, the prestige, awards, money, and love, all the things we value, are limited, and therefore must be competed for. The miracle of being human is not enough. We must prove ourselves by winning the approval of others. Life is a contest. A few win. But most don’t.

We assume that the only way to survive is by competing. Everyone compares himself with everyone else. Self-worth is measured in terms of external future goals. We see it in the family, our school, in business, church, the military, and neighborhood street gangs. The entire culture operates on the assumption that “more for me equals less for you.” We assume very early that our real self, who we really are, is defined by the limited goods, the services, and prestige the culture provides through contests. By competing we buy into a cultural identity that masks our true nature. We become attached to this cultural identity and all the rewards reinforce that image. The culture controls us through that image. If we didn’t identify with that image, the culture would find it very difficult to control us. That’s what the rewards and contests do. They provide a way for culture to control us. Optimum states of learning and performance liberate us from the image and from culture’s control. Suddenly what seemed miraculous becomes easy, even natural.

This cultural identity is very important because, in a contest culture, most people lose. That is part of the control, but we don’t tell anybody that. When we stop winning, as certain athletes and stars have discovered, we find that the culture never liked who we really are. What the culture likes is the illusion of being a winner. Who inhabits this position is totally irrelevant.

Personal Interview
O. Fred Donaldson, Ph.D.
Author, Playing by Heart

A positive emotional state entrains or unites our systems for thought, feeling, and action, shifts our concentration and energy toward support of our intellectual creative forebrain, and we both learn and remember easily. In infant-children, the mother’s emotional state determines the child’s state, and therefore development in general. On the other hand, and this is true lifelong, any kind of negative response, any form of fear or anger of any sort, shifts our attention-energy from evolution’s latest intellectual to her earliest survival brain. We then don’t have full access to evolution’s higher intelligence, but react on the more primitive level. When we are insecure, anxious, undecided and tense, attention can get divided among the three brains, each with its own agenda, so that we are then thinking one thing, feeling something else and acting differently to either. In this all-too-common confusion, learning and development are impaired in children and decision-making can be very faulty in adults.

The Biology of Transcendence

It is not too difficult to see that rewards are used to control behavior and that the real beneficiary of the control is the controller. Early identification with an external identity gives the existing parental, educational, religious, business, and political structure the power to control behavior in the predetermined patterns that support the existing structure we call culture. We enter contests to prove how well we can conform and by so doing win the favor of others. We enter that state of optimum experience, play, flow, or the Zone when the false limitations, conflicts, and pressures of this cultural identity disappear. For that timeless moment there is a “crack in the cosmic egg.” Culture loses control of us and we are free to break the four-minute mile. We can run, jump, hit the ball, climb the mountain, think, imagine, and dream in completely new ways. We are in play - in the Zone - and literally have slipped out of culture’s control. To risk being that out of control, we must feel very safe.

The genius of play is not being limited by all the categories in which we live. In that unique time/space which is play, we’re not members of those categories. We aren’t men or women, white or black, Americans or South Africans. By categories I mean the social, cultural, psychological image that I identify as being Fred, white, male, 6’4", 200-pound athlete. Play is nature’s energy, not Fred’s. I didn’t invent it. I don’t create it. I can participate in it. I can share in it. I can allow it. And only to the extent that the social categories disappear can play happen.

Personal Interview
O. Fred Donaldson, Ph.D.
Author, Playing by Heart
Journal 7.5
“Early identification with an external identity gives the existing parental, educational, religious, business, and political structure the power to control behavior in the predetermined patterns that support the existing structure we call culture. We enter contests to prove how well we can conform and by so doing win the favor of others.” How true do you think this statement is and what are its implications for you and your child?

Any image we hold about ourselves - and therefore defend - is, by definition, limited. How could it be otherwise? The universe is always changing and so are we. The more fixed and rigid the image, the more confining are its boundaries. The more flexible or expansive the image, the greater the range of possibilities that image may accommodate. Having no image implies real freedom and unlimited possibilities. If there is no image we can be anything. This implies a quality of relationship that is very difficult to predict and control. So why aren’t more of us in the Zone most of the time?

Approval of Others
Membership in the group is very important. Human babies are born nine months premature compared to other species. Acceptance and approval of others is a matter of survival. We must live within the boundaries the culture provides. All organizations within the culture operate by the same basic rules. We are accepted and considered good if we abide by the terms of membership. We pay allegiance to the group by conforming to its accepted pattern. This often involves contests. If we stop paying allegiance, stop competing, we’re not a member anymore. And that’s very scary.

Everybody knows how to complete the sentence. There’s only one way of doing things, the right way. Anything worth doing is worth doing right. If you can’t do it right, don’t do it at all. As parents we show the world how adequate we are through the performance of our children. We focus on their behavior and their behavior is a reflection of our competency as parents. And as children learn they are going to make mistakes. We know how to celebrate our victories but not our defeats, losses, mistakes, and failures. We don’t know how to celebrate the learning that’s earned through the mistake-making process. We tend to cover them up and not share them with each other. That’s the way the culture functions.

Personal Interview
Bowen White, M.D.
Author, Clown

Culture exists only as a process of correcting the error of its own existence, which existence causes us pain and anguish while impelling us to correct our culture to escape that very pain. In the enormous consumption of energy culture must have for its error ridden sustenance, not one mind, not one soul, can be spared. (And should you try to bring up your child for any other purpose than supporting culture, your culture will turn and rend you, in politically appropriate ways; so you best keep quiet about it should you try.)

The Biology of Transcendence

What Will They Think of Me?
If it is a tight game and this shot really matters, most of us get nervous. People are more afraid of public speaking than of dying. What will others think of us if we strike out or say something stupid? That’s the big question, isn’t it? We are afraid of what others may think. At that crucial instant our attention splits between meeting the challenge and looking good. Self-defense always comes first. The greater is the fear, the greater the energy that goes into defense. And it is this split that separates most of us from the truly great performers. When the pressure is on, the great athletes, the great dancers, the great anything, forget about themselves and meet the challenge completely with 100 percent of their energy and attention. Love of the game, love of experience, love of this present moment and all its relationships can occur only when we feel safe enough to play, when we no longer feel any need to justify or defend ourselves. If we are being judged, tested, compared, or graded, the true intelligence of play is denied.

Contests are everywhere, in the street gang, the Little League team, the professional team, in school, in the corporation. In a contest culture we end up competing with the entire world. There’s no time-out. Parents are part of their peer group hierarchy, which extends to their children. We think we will be failures if we don’t compete in our religion, in our job, our marriage, in child-rearing, in the car we drive, and we pass this on to our children very early.

It all starts when we substitute original play with cultural/competitive games at home or on the playground. When this happens, the rules change from sharing to not sharing and we aren’t honest with children about this. We don’t say, “Remember that sharing I told you about in pre-school, well now in first grade we don’t do that anymore. Forget the sharing stuff. Now it’s winning that counts.”

When original play is traded for competition, the incredibly resilient, flexible, creative beings children are become trapped in the contest. From then on, most of their creative energy is used in ways that insure they don’t fail. Risking anything new becomes too tough.

Whether they are a seven-year-old, worried about how he or she looks on the street, or the man or woman caught in a horrible job, they are trapped and the contest doesn’t allow them to step out. To not compete means you’re off the team, no longer a member, you’re an outsider, all alone. That’s the cultural trap. Not only is the child involved in that hierarchy, the parent is too. Each of us is like a knot in a fishing net. You’re going to be a failure if you don’t compete in your religion, in your job, in your marriage, in your child-rearing, in the car and home you have, and we pass this on to our children very early.

Personal Interview
O. Fred Donaldson, Ph.D.
Author, Playing by Heart

Parents say, “What do you want me to do? It’s a jungle out there. If I don’t teach my child to be a strong competitor he or she will get creamed. Survival of the fittest. I win, you lose.” CEOs lament, “I had to lay off half of our workforce to save the company.” Gang members say the same thing. “I had to kill to be a member.” Many preschools have entrance exams and waiting lists. Replacing child’s play with adult-organized athletic programs, nationwide “high stakes” testing, corporate brand identification, and other pressures insures that everyone is a competitor. The truth is that Charles Darwin was wrong.

Research has shown that human nature - and all of nature - is really cooperative. The term “survival of the fittest” was coined by Herbert Spencer, a sociologist, and was a very unsound view of what Darwin was saying. In the 19th century, which was called the “age of conflict,” competition was the principle by which most imperialist nations lived and competition was readily accepted, joyfully by the military of every country…

The very origin of life is associated with cooperation. If you study ameba and take one cell and place it on one end of a slide and another cell on the other, and observe what happens, both tend to migrate toward each other. This I believe is the basic pattern of all living forms. It’s right there in the nature of your protoplasm. And then we develop two cells, four cells, and these endear together into millions of cells, all of which are in cooperation with each other. This is the biological basis of all living things, a cooperative behavior, which binds the society more closely together. We are born to live as if to live and love were one.

Personal Interview
Ashley Montagu
Author, Educator, Humanist

To the epidemic of children shooting children, add the increase of child suicide. Up to the post World-War II period, no suicide had ever been recorded under age fourteen. By 1991 child suicide extended down to age three and a child attempted suicide in our country every 78 seconds. Some six a day succeeded. (We have an excellent 911 emergency system and suicide proves far harder to bring about than most children are aware of.) Suicide as of the year 2000 is now the third highest cause of all deaths in children between the ages of five and seventeen. Far more suicides are attempted by girls than boys, yet boys far outnumber girls in actual completed suicide. There is no historical precedent of this phenomena at all, and it is almost totally ignored. While one hears the constant shrill commands of NO! and DON’T at every hand, from cradle to grave, seldom do we see nurturance and love. The price of arbitrary compliance from the toddler with our own shameful action is paid over and over, year after year, by our whole nation.

The Biology of Transcendence
Journal 7.6
List five practical things you can do to slip between the cracks of our contest culture.

Play Deprivation & Violence
Stuart Brown has spent most of his professional life exploring play, in humans and in nature. He wrote a cover story on animals and play for National Geographic and a PBS special on the same theme. The critical need for play and the violence associated with play depravation emerged as a surprise finding in his investigation into the life of Charles Whitman, the Texas Tower Sniper.

I got a call from my chief of service saying that I was to organize an investigation and find out why a twenty-five-year-old man, who by then had been identified as Charles Whitman, would shoot thirty-one people, killing nineteen, off the Texas University tower. This was 1966, three years after the Kennedy motorcade and Governor Conley wanted to know what would produce this kind of tragedy. So we organized a team and studied Whitman’s life.

Within a week interviews with family and friends began to tell the story. He’d been an over-controlled, humiliated kid. He came from a tightly knit Catholic family. Charles was very bright, youngest Eagle Scout in the United States, an altar boy, in ROTC, was a scholarship recipient, married a delightful woman, and it looked like he had everything going for him. What came out of the personal interviews however, was that he had not ever engaged in spontaneous play.

The next year I headed a team that went throughout the prison and the state hospital systems to interview all the young male murderers in the state of Texas. Over 90 percent of the murderers, whether they came from upper-class economic circumstances or were in a state hospital system revealed high levels of play deprivation.

If the adult culture is play-deprived, which is pervasive in Western Europe and the United States, then that adult culture is not going to allow the natural evolution of authentic play to develop in children. We see this all around us. Spontaneous free play in childhood has been systematically replaced by adult organized activities.

Personal Interview
Stuart Brown, M.D.
Author, PBS Producer
Journal 7.7
What if Stuart is correct and a play-deprived culture is a violent culture? How does this clear possibility express itself in your family and throughout all of your relationships? What are you going to do about it?

A negative experience of any sort, whether an event in our environment or simply a thought in our head, brings an automatic shift of attention-energy from forebrain to hindbrain; that is, away from our high intellectual verbal brain toward the lower R-system and its defenses. This shift short-changes our intellect, cripples our learning and memory, and can lock our high forebrain into service of and identification with our lowest hind- brain. (Perhaps this explains the rather reptilian nature of your boss or in-law.)

The Biology of Transcendence