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  • Anna Brix Thomsen

The Negative Consequences of Positive Reinforcement: DAY 83

There has, going back as far as the last 30-40 years, been a trend towards validating children through ‘positive reinforcement’ as a pedagogical strategy in parenting as well as education. My mother was such a parent and she specifically used these strategies based on wanting to do something different than what her parents did towards her growing up. When I was a child my mother would tell me stories about how mean her mother was to her and without saying it outright, with such stories she made a point to distance herself from her own upbringing. I am sure that in some way or another she wanted to treat me, as she would have wanted to be treated as a child.

My mother belonged to a generation where ‘tough love’ was the pedagogical tool of the time and she experienced on her own body how degrading this form of upbringing was, ranging from physical isolation and spankings to verbal punishments. My grandparents weren’t especially abusive or tantalizing. They simply raised their children the way they had been raised.

The reason why I am sharing this, is to show how the strategy of positive validation of children is a result of a specific historical development. It was thus not developed as a deliberate pedagogical strategy based on the principle of developing a best practice in parenting and education. During the time when my mother grew up for example, there was a saying that “Children should be seen but not heard” which meant that children were more like ‘extras’ in the theater of showing off family life. This rapidly changed, partly through the developments in social sciences and psychology where children went from being seen as ‘empty barrels’ to being seen as capable in their own right from the moment they were born. However, this way of seeing children also changed on a more personal level, when people such as my mother started immersing themselves in subjects like psychology and therapy. Through this they realized how their childhoods had been robed of joy and self-esteem due to the ‘tough love’ regime enforced by their parents. (Obviously there are still many places on earth where tough love is the most common principle used in raising children).

What I would like to show here is that the paradigm of validating children in a positive way in many respects comes from a reaction towards what was in the past, more than it necessarily has been a carefully considered new strategy in the field of pedagogy and parenting. This means that this ‘method’ or ‘strategy’ in many ways comes from an experience of lack within the parents themselves and an attempt to redeem what is believed to have been lost through a ‘do-over’ process of going in the opposite direction of how one was brought up.

Unfortunately this new paradigm of positive validation is not a perfect solution and we are starting to see how it backfires on a massive scale. From an increase in teen suicides to toddlers being given total reign over their family, making choices that they might not be equipped to make.

The children that grow up now are thus the 2. And 3. Generation raised on positive validation and it shows clearly in how ‘natural’ it is for them to ask for validation and how easy it is for us as adults to encourage such validation-seeking by applauding and praising them in ‘good faith’ that we are strengthening their emotional immune system with sticky sweet love and affection on a daily basis. I can tell you from my own experience as a teacher that it has been very difficult for me to not employ positive validation of children and I can thus see how engrained this way of communicating with children has become, because it certainly is not something that I have been taught as a ‘didactic method’ through my education. Thus it instead comes from my own upbringing and from society in general through how positive validation is now saturated into the social fibers of our communities at a fundamental level.

A problem with positive validation is that it teaches children that their value and worth as human beings comes from others approving, applauding and appraising them on a constant and continuous basis. This has gotten to the point were ‘positive reinforcement’ through rewards (or blackmail) is a standardized part of elementary education in some countries. Children thus get a gold star when they’ve done their work and having experimented with this method briefly in the classroom I can certainly understand why is being used because it obviously works in many cases. In the classroom, we also play children out against one another, where the ‘good students’ get validated for following instructions and the ‘bad students’ get punished or excluded when they don’t. A problem with this method is that we fail to realize that our school system is built up so one-dimensional that only a fraction of students are able to succeed and achieve those gold stars. The other kids never stood a chance and so they come to believe that there is something wrong with them, because after all the responsibility for their apparent ‘failure’ is placed upon them personally, when in fact the system wasn’t structured in such a way to truly harness and nurture their true potential.

The question is however what the long-term consequences is in terms of what kind of human being it is that is being produced through this approach to education and parenting.

Parents and teachers alike use validation as a ‘punishment and reward system’ in order to control children into obedience based on an experience of feeling powerless. It is again a strategy based on reaction, where we as adults come, not from a careful consideration of best practices and potential outflow consequences, but from an experience of desperation towards not being able to effectively direct that enigma we call a child. So adults use such punishments and rewards to make sure that kids do their homework but often fail to realize that this this strategy isn’t merely a method of reigning children. It becomes a living principle for children through which they start seeing life in general in a context of punishments and rewards.

When adults deliberately add appraisal to activities and chores to compel children to do things, it takes away the point of doing things as a natural form of support or self-enjoyment. Eating vegetables or cleaning the dishes for example isn’t a major accomplishment. They are natural day-to-day activities that we do to support our bodies, our living environment and ourselves. By praising children for doing such activities, we are taking away their opportunity to understand how living works in a practical and physical way that is supposed to be self-satisfying in its own regard without it being something ‘more’ or ‘greater’. We can ironically see the consequences of employing such principles on a global scale. When people act in kindness towards animals we call them heroes. We praise ourselves for celebrating ‘earth day’ one day a year even though the current condition of the eco-system requires a daily focus and attention to the needs of the environment. When we give to charity we feel good about ourselves and believe that we have done our part in making the world a better place. We expect praise and applause for actions that should have been natural and commonsensical from the get-go.

The most significant problem with using validation in parenting as well as in education is that it separates the students from the self-fulfillment of their work AND their worth. Because instead of doing things to be satisfied with themselves they do it to satisfy their teacher or their parent and from that they derive a positive energetic experience. As such they learn that their worth and value is contingent upon producing something outside of themselves (like homework) through which the adult will then validate them.

What this means is that our worth and value as human beings is placed as something separate from us that we can only achieve through the validation of others. So we are taught that ‘who we are’ as the value and worth of our being, which is in actuality something inherent that we can never lose or gain, is existent separate from us and thus has to be given back to us by someone else who thus automatically gets the power and authority to decide our worth and value. When the child is prompted to separate itself from its own inherent value by placing focus on what the child produces (like applauding a drawing) outside of itself, a ‘loss and gain’ game is initiated that eventually grows into an addiction towards being validated on an emotional and psychological level.

We can even see how this is carried with us into adulthood: It is a ‘perfect’ system because it keeps us existing in fear and compliance to our relationships with each other. And so we can see how this epidemic of validation is the foundation of training complacent workers that will work for reward without real awareness of what they are in fact working on. A good example of that is how we are told to strive for a career, that our work is supposed to be a satisfaction in itself because it apparently reflects our growth as human beings. But within that it is again someone else that has the final say as to whether we are worthy or valuable, as we project value on to status and symbols of success.

As we have seen here, validation is not an effective pedagogical strategy because it modifies the child into dependency at a fundamental level. This does however not mean that the only alternative is to go back to the ‘tough love’ methods that traumatized so many and that still in many cultures is the staple when it comes to pedagogical strategies. It is interesting within this how we as human beings tend to see things in black and white, like “if it is not black then it must be white” – when in fact there is an entire spectrum of colors to play with, it simply requires us to be creative and to ‘think out of the box’ that is our own festered mind-programs.

As a teacher, I am working with this on a daily level and I can tell you flat out that I find it very difficult. Daily I hear the question: “Do you like this drawing?” from 6 year olds and I still haven’t found an appropriate answer. Sometimes I say: “Do you like it?” So as to bring the child’s focus back to itself and assist the child to step out of the need to be validated to feel satisfied about itself. However I also find myself, on a daily basis, using words of validation simply because this way of communicating, especially with children, is so integrated into my vocabulary. It requires a constant progressive and self-provoking effort to challenge these ‘politically correct’ methods, exactly because they are ‘politically correct’ which means that moving out of them is moving out of the comfort zone and challenge the taboos of what is considered ‘best practice’ when it comes to educating children.

However we only have to look at the current political climate and the consequences it is manifesting to see that what is considered politically correct isn’t necessarily what is best for our children or society as a whole. As such we have to dare to change what is considered ‘correct’ on a political level, also when it comes to our children’s education or the way we parent. There are many ways one can practically do that. One of them is to change how one communicate and interact with the children in one’s life. However firstly I would suggest that we all take a look in the mirror and investigate our own relationship to validation, because it is only through understanding it in ourselves that we will be able to become and stand as examples of a different way of living to our children.

The most prominent realization I have had as I’ve investigated validation for myself was that the validation didn’t actually come from the other person, although the ‘system’ of validation itself involves others ‘playing along’ or even instigating the ‘validation game’. In the end the experience of feeling validated is something we create inside ourselves, which is why some people never feel validated no matter how much others shower them with praise. It is because it is not really others who have the power to give us value or worth but that we’ve projected that power onto them. This is good news because it means that while we were the problem all along, we are also the solution. And that means that we can change and thus have the power and authority to do so. We can re-educate ourselves to bring back our value and worth from ‘out there’ to being the foundation of who we are and from where we act and so within this empower ourselves in so many ways where our interaction with others can become equal and independent which in turn in fact gives us the power to change society by standing together as sovereign individuals in equality.

For those ready to get involved and get moving I suggest investigating the Equal Life Foundation’s proposal of a Guaranteed Living Income System. This proposal suggests a groundbreaking change in political paradigms that doesn’t ‘take sides’ but instead presents a completely new approach to solving the problems we are currently facing in this world.

Educate yourself here:

The Ultimate History Lesson:


Human Resources: Social Engineering in the 20th Century

The Story of Your Enslavement

On Advertisement and the end of the world:

Third World America – Chris Hedges


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