why we do what we do

In 1969 a psychologist named Edward Deci conducted an experiment with a puzzle involving wooden blocks. A group of college students was paid a dollar for each puzzle they completed. Another group was not.

The experiment was really about what happened when the researcher left the room, supposedly to get a survey for the students to complete. The ones who were paid to do the puzzles were distracted, looking at magazines and other items in the room. Those who were not being paid, however, continued to try and solve the puzzles.

In his book Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation Deci describes this and similar research, arguing that rewards and punishments may actually work against parents, teachers and employers in the long run.

I’m inclined to agree, especially since such motivators reinforce external rather than internal motivation. If you control your kids by offering them rewards for everything they do, you don’t get good kids—you get greedy ones.

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what’s wrong with rewards? parenting in an age of incentives

In An Age of Incentives Eric Felton says incentives for students are spreading like kudzu. Not only are parents paying off their kids for making good grades, schools in New York, DC, Chicago and Dallas have paid out $6 million in incentives for getting better grades, reading books, and behaving in class.

North Carolina is even paying teenage girls a dollar a day not to get pregnant and communities everywhere are paying people to sort their trash while companies pay out bonuses for quitting smoking or losing weight. Philadelphia has a pilot program paying people for remembering to take their medicine.

This “libertarian paternalism,” as some have called it, encourages good behavior rather than penalizing the bad. “But of course the libertarian part of the equation is just a clever way of making the paternalism more palatable,” Felton writes.

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the pace of parenting

Now that mother’s day is over, it’s interesting to note that the age of the Super Mom may be over too. In a wonderful overview of this trend, Lisa Belkin notes that they have moved past confessing their failures online to embracing a new philosophy called slow parenting.

The term itself is attributed to Carl Honore, author of In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed. He doesn’t actually use the term, but the final chapter of his book is called “Raising an Unhurried Child.” And his next book was Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting.

I’ve read Praise, which has chapters on slowing down practically everything, including sex, and Honore is no new age guru. I get the sense that he is a thoughtful journalist trying to describe a cultural wave, and being changed and challenged by the project. He is also a dad who wants to slow down enough to recover his relationship with his own children. He began exploring the movement because he was tempted to read One-Minute Bedtime Stories to his two year old.

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