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No More Punishments, No More Rewards

20th April 2019

Judgement is the root of violence. It takes people and puts them into two groups, good people who deserve rewards, and bad people who deserve punishment.

When we judge people as bad because we don’t like their actions, suddenly violence against them seems like a good option. After all, they do “bad” things, so we should do something against them to make them stop or teach them a lesson. When you punish someone, you naturally create resistance to your ideas and beliefs, and we rarely get what we want in the long run (which is to encourage more thoughtful and kind behaviour). What we actually do is create more violence in the world.

What do we learn from violence committed against us? We learn to hate, we learn fear, and we learn to resent others.

I am anti-punishment because it doesn’t work, and it doesn’t make the world a better place. It creates pain that we will always regret when we recognise what we cause with our punishments.

Unfortunately, the same goes for rewards. Rewards manipulate behaviour, and people receiving rewards soon learn to externalise the behaviour in return for something. In the long term this is just as destructive as punishments.

When I was a kindergarten teacher in Nagoya, I was advised by other teachers to liberally use stickers as rewards, because children love stickers and they will do what you say if you promise to give stickers afterwards. I was a new teacher at the time, so I tried it and it worked. The children were more likely to do what I wanted that time, but later when I planned activities for them to do in class, they wanted stickers. If I didn’t give stickers, they didn’t “perform”.

Over time I noticed that the more stickers I gave, the more of them I had to give to get a similar response. I even went out and bought better, shinier stickers so the kids would have something special if they did the tasks in class. It didn’t take me long to realise that I was harming my students by taking away their intrinsic joy in contributing to the class and replacing it with a reward system that manipulated the children into doing what I wanted them to do, not what would make their lives more enjoyable or allow them to enjoy natural giving.

After I switched schools and moved to Tokyo I made it a policy to not give stickers to my students, and to be more careful about my praise. Not just “good boy, good girl” but thinking of ways to show my students (who could speak English very well) how their efforts to help others had real impacts. You wouldn’t believe not only how effective this was at encouraging behaviours that made the class an absolute joy to teach, but also had me constantly getting comments from other teachers about how helpful, kind and resourceful my students were. It really is incredibly powerful to remove rewards and replace it with a dialogue about behaviours that make our lives more wonderful.

So next time you feel like giving a co-worker, a child, a partner or a friend some reward, think instead about what their behaviour did to make your life (or the lives of others) more wonderful.

“When you cleaned up the kitchen it took a huge weight off my shoulders, so I could come home and feel relaxed and peaceful. Thank you.”

“Thank you for sharing this time with me. I have a real need for connection right now and you were there for me when it counted.”

“Thank you for inviting me out this week. I really needed to forget about the horrible week I had and you really helped me re-centre myself.”

By focusing on what others do for us that makes our life more joyful, we recognise their unique contribution and how it made our lives more wonderful. I believe that people want to contribute to the improvement of the lives of others if only we didn’t externalise their natural desire to do so.

It’s not easy and I have to remind myself every day to try and use the words I choose, rather than the words [of rewards and punishments] I’ve been brought up with as an English speaker. Give it a try, and see if you can make other people’s lives more wonderful.

In memory of Marshall B. Rosenberg, founder of Nonviolent Communication



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