Autonomy plays an important role in fostering social and moral growth. If we want children to take responsibility for their behavior, we must first give them responsibility, and plenty of it. A child learns to make decisions by making decisions, not by following orders. We need to think in terms of helping children acquire the social, ethical, and cognitive skills necessary for reflection about which ends are worth pursuing and how best to pursue them. We need to trust our children to make their own decisions about which rules and values to embrace.
In order to enable children to not simply comply, but to integrate desirable values, i.e., to make that value her own, understand its rationale, and experience a sense of self-determination in acting in accordance with it, we need to give children chances to solve their own problems, participate in making meaningful decisions (i.e., age/stage appropriate decisions about the things that matter, where we do care about the outcome).
It is true that people who use punishments and rewards as a matter of course will likely find this material deeply disturbing. “Does this mean I’m a bad parent (or teacher)?” To this Kohn responds:
Anyone willing to challenge him or herself with that concern demonstrates the courage and flexibility that children need to be around. It is tempting to respond: “I don’t care what your studies say, rewards work.” The capacity to call into question one’s long-standing ways of thinking and acting, to reconsider an approach so ingrained as to be second nature, belongs at the top of any list of what makes a good parent or teacher. And rewards and punishments belong at the top of any list of what needs careful examination. The bad news is we have paid an enormous price for accepting it for so long. The good news is that we can do better. —Alfie Kohn