When You Don't Get Rewarded for Good Behavior

This blog post first appeared over at www.allisonvesterfelt.com - you can read more about Allison there! 

Photo Credit: skippyjon, Creative Commons

Recently I watched a friend of mine act really graciously toward someone who was a total jerk to her.

It made me mad. Furious, actually. I wanted to stand up and protect her. I wanted to jump in and throw punches where she wasn’t. But she is a better woman than me and took the high road. And she challenged me to take the high road with her, so I did. I could see how, in the long run, taking the “high road” was going to be the best option.

But in the short run I didn’t want to be the bigger person. It felt wrong. It felt like my friend was getting punished, while the person who wronged her was getting to walk away free and happy.

Does it ever seem to you like some people just don’t get rewarded for good behavior?

It makes me think about elementary school, and how good behavior was almost always rewarded. The rewards were immediate and they were extrinsic. At West Union Elementary (where I went to school) we had little tickets called “gotchas.” Teachers would hand them out when they “gotcha” doing something nice (get it?).

If you picked up trash, or stood up for a friend or turned in your assignment on time you would get one. And at the end of the week you could turn in your “gotchas” for some kind of prize. Plus, your name would be entered into a drawing.

It was so nice to know that good behavior rarely went unnoticed.

The same thing would happen at home. I would get stars on my star chart for doing my chores or for being sweet to my sister, or for finishing my vegetables without complaining.

I’m not slamming these strategies. They taught me the basic principals of obedience and discipline. But by the time I got to college, and especially by the time I left college, the basic structure of rewards and punishments started to break down.

There are so many problems with thinking that there is some direct, immediate correlation between doing the “right” thing and getting a positive result. The first, and most obvious, is that (outside of elementary school) your motivation for doing good will disappear. If you’re expecting to be immediately and extrinsically rewarded for every good thing you do, you’ll be disappointed and probably quit trying.

People are not always immediately rewarded for good behavior.

I’ve lived long enough to see how honest, hard-working people end up living without luxuries enjoyed by those who feel free to lie, cheat and steal to get where they’re going.

I’ve spent the last decade of my life responding to the recognition of this reality in a couple of ways.

First, I’ve felt angry. I’ve tried to “bring justice” by enforcing rewards and punishments as I saw fit on everyone around me. When I followed this response I ran straight into pride and hypocrisy really fast.

I can try to pick the splinter out of your eye, but first I have to get this giant 2×4 out of mine.

I’ve also given up, which was equally unproductive. I stopped trying because being the “bigger person is hard,” and I was tired of it. The high road was long and steep and never seemed to get me to the destination I wanted.

It isn’t until recently I started to see that there is no immediate, extrinsic reward for doing the “right thing,” and that if I was waiting for mine, I would be waiting a long time.

Making the right choice is the reward.

Having good character is the reward. It isn’t immediate. It takes a long time to build. It isn’t extrinsic (on the outside). It’s on the inside. It is the fruit of the spirit. Things like love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness and self-control.

What do you think? Have you ever felt like you didn’t get rewarded for good behavior? To reply click HERE.