All Commentary
Tuesday, March 1, 1988

Rewarding Uniformity

Kenneth Bisson, M.D., has practiced family medicine in a rural Indiana community for the past eight years.

“Because we had a 100 percent sign-up for fluoride treatments, we are going to make and share a pizza.” I was dismayed to read that statement in my son’s weekly parents letter from his third grade teacher. A push toward conformity had tested the integrity of a class of third graders.

What will a child do when facing a system designed to reward uniformity? Let’s consider this question using the relatively innocuous case of offering a pizza lunch for 100 per cent sign-up for school fluoride. There will be two perspectives from which a student can consider a teacher’s reward. Both perspectives provide a dismal view of rewarding uniformity.

We begin by assessing the effect of the school fluoride on each student’s dental health. A decision to participate should depend on each student’s unique circumstances regarding the fluoride content of his water, his toothpaste, and his preference for receiving any needed supplements from the family dentist or from the school.

As a family physician I guide parents making fluoride choices. In the well water across our county, natural levels of fluoride range from far below to far above the standard city water’s controlled level of one part per million. I see children with fluorosis from excessive fluoride and children with caries which might have been avoided by increased fluoride use.

Thus, depending on his non-school fluoride use, a student may view the school’s program from one of two perspectives: 1) I will benefit from participating in the school fluoride program, or 2) I will not benefit from participating in the school program. Even at this level of analysis the decision to reward 100 per cent participation begins to look questionable. A closer inspection of the effects on the individuals in either camp should lead to the rejection of reward systems that require uniformity.

First consider the student who wants to participate and will benefit from additional fluoride treatments. His opportunity to receive pizza may be denied by the failure of another student to select the alternative preferred by the teacher. Will he feel motivated to urge classmates to select the preferred choice? What message is being given about individuals’ thinking for themselves? Are these students being asked to “help” others to make the “right” choice? I believe this is unfortunately the case.

Although they may not be consciously aware of it, these students will be influenced by the many implications of this situation. The teacher’s push toward conformity glorifies peer pressure. This is the same peer pressure we often ask our children to resist by urging them to “think for themselves.”

Now let’s consider the student risking harm from additional fluoride. For this student, a choice not to participate will preserve his teeth. Making that choice requires him to be true to himself. He thus demonstrates confidence in his ability to pursue his own values. By honestly doing so he maintains his integrity. Although his relationship with his teacher and classmates may unfortunately suffer, his self-esteem is not diminished by that choice.

Suppose however that this student fails to pursue his own values and instead sacrifices them in order to select the choice preferred by his teacher. Here the reward system is revealed to be a source of true misery. Of course, now everyone will get to enjoy a pizza lunch. But in abandoning his own values, this student is passing a judgment on himself that, after many repetitions, will cost him much more than unattractive teeth. When a child surrenders to pressure and denies the importance of his own values, he also surrenders his self-esteem.

Self-esteem is the reputation we acquire with ourselves. I believe that a primary challenge for parents and teachers, in working with children, is to enhance self-esteem. As a parent, I consider the encouragement of each of my children’s self-esteem to be as important as providing food, clothing, and shelter. A high self-esteem is a major requirement of a fulfilling life. An individual with low self-esteem, by definition, will feel inadequate and unworthy of a happy, successful life. Such an individual will make choices that bring about a life that’s as miserable as he believes he deserves.

I hope every parent and teacher will consider enhancing a child’s self-esteem when choosing reward systems. Providing motivation in appropriate ways is not an easy task. As parents and teachers we must administer our power as an authority figure carefully, with deliberate forethought. Rather than reward uniformity, we can seize opportunities to celebrate individuality.

My focus on the individual in the above discussion does not imply that I undervalue the magnificent benefits of teamwork and group activities. Indeed, the best of achievements result from individuals working together! But it is because of individual differences that groups of individuals with differing strengths can produce more than can a group of clones. Imagine basketball teams comprised of all centers or all guards. Their performance would be reduced because of their uniformity. They would be as ineffective as would be a school full of only math teachers. Uniformity is a detriment to successful teamwork.

In conclusion, a reward system based on uniformity is unwise. Because of our valuable individual differences, it is uncommon for a single choice to be right for each of us. Even in that case where all individuals may actually benefit from selecting the same action, requiring uniformity denies the reward to all whenever one classmate chooses poorly. Usually such a reward system becomes an unreasonable test of integrity for the individuals who ought to make the unrewarded choice. Rewarding uniformity tempts these students to trade their self-esteem for the approval of their peers and teacher.

Encouraging individuals to be responsible for themselves results in a society of better individuals. Such individuals confidently exercise their decision-making capacity rather than defer to others. We can reward uniformity or we can encourage self-responsibility, competence, confidence, and integrity. The better choice is obvious.