Rewards, not punishment, the more practical parenting software
When my younger daughter was little she was a spirited kid. (Now she is a spirited adult!) She was not a member of the “communication gang”. In kindergarten, she refused to sit in line during story time. She often insisted on getting her way and, like many parents, we often felt frustrated and helpless. We didn’t want to suppress their exuberant spirit, but we wanted a little more cooperation in everyday life.
If she had one of her episodes, also known as tantrums, in our frustration we threatened to take away various toys or privileges. In those moments we could have stolen everything she cherished from her to no avail. If she was upset, it didn’t matter what the consequences were. And when we carried out our punishment afterward, it didn’t seem to be doing much to prevent another outbreak of bad behavior!
What we observed is that punishment rarely worked as a system for improving their behavior. Where from?
Behavioral psychology has done a thorough study of how we learn. We learn by mimicking others and through contingencies (or what happens when we do something). Negative reinforcement or punishment is not very effective in changing behavior. It works somewhat, but it can also create fear or anxiety. It is the school of “power makes law” and tends to encourage aggressive or fearful behavior. That is not to say that there should be no natural and logical consequences for behavior.
Think about it on the adult stage. Suppose your boss cut your salary every time you did something he or she didn’t want. How would that work? How would you feel about your job? What would you think of your boss? It might stop you from doing what she didn’t want, but would it help you do a better job? For fear of losing your wages, you may be afraid of doing the wrong thing!
Now think of the opposite. Suppose your boss gives you a little bonus every time you do something right. How would that feel? How do you feel when your manager points out what a great job you’re doing? Positive contingencies are much stronger in shaping and changing behavior.
Why should children be different? It is not you. They respond much better to rewards than they do to punishment. Consistency and predictability are necessary. Rewarding positive behavior whenever it comes up can be a very powerful tool in encouraging collaboration and community-centered action.
So give it a try:
Decide which behaviors you want to encourage in your child. This is actually a more difficult task than you think. I found honesty very important. I also wanted our children to be community-minded – thinking about the group’s welfare, not just their own needs. Try to keep it simple. Identify which behaviors actually represent the values you want to increase.
Reward these behaviors when your child is about to do them. If your child is hanging up their coat, putting away their sister’s toys, trying to do a homework, solving a problem with a friend, etc., give them an “atta girl,” positive attention, a small reward, or a special time with you . Find out what rewards are important to them. You may need to change them frequently as they lose their value. Rewards can also include screen time or special activities. For younger children, the reward should be given on the same day of behavior – for young children, waiting a few days feels like forever.
Don’t forget about consistency and predictability. Without that, you won’t get the results you hope for.
Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at Everett Clinic. You can find his Family Talk blog at www.everettclinic.com/health-wellness-library.html.