Parenting: Reward or Punishment
Children can get themselves into all kinds of mischief.
Taking stuff that doesn’t belong to them, lying, doing things that they know they shouldn’t do, sucker punching their little brother—it’s a long list. Then there is the even longer list of forgetting to do things that they’re supposed to do—making their bed, putting away their toys, and brushing their teeth. So much of parenthood is raising our children to be responsible individuals who are honest, hard-working, reliable, and have good habits. It’s a tough and unrelenting job.
It seems like a completely natural response to punish bad behavior and praise good behavior. Give Joey an “atta-boy” when he puts away his toys and a “time out” when he hits his little brother. How many times have we sent Sarah up to her room “to think about what she did wrong?”
When my oldest daughter was 8, I visited her class, for the purposes of writing a column on this very subject. I asked her classmates— “What do you think about when your parents send you to your room?” Without a pause, they all chimed in with the same answer— “We think about how we’re going to get revenge on our parents!”. What? This is not what Moms and Dads have in mind when they send their kids for “time out”!
Bill, in his mid 70’s, reflected on his relationship with his Dad, who was iron-fisted when it came to discipline. Bill was a mischievous boy—but his father was quick to punish him for any wrong-doing, without reprieve. Bill resented his father’s heavy hand. He would get back at his Dad by giving him the silent treatment—a passive-aggressive approach to expressing his anger. And, in response to his Dad, he just became sneakier. As a child, he felt victimized by his father’s use of his parental authority.
All too often, parents bring in their kids for help, who have developed a pattern of misbehavior. Their parents have piled on one punishment on top of another—each one increasingly severe. Instead of turning things around, their son or daughter’s behavior seems to worsen. Everyone is frustrated. Parents feel hopeless and helpless.
Some simple behavioral principles can be helpful in righting this ship.
Positive reinforcement is far more effective than negative reinforcement.
Rewarding behavior that’s positive, or that’s moving in a positive direction, is far more powerful than punishment. It’s motivating and relationship enhancing. The rewards have to be meaningful and desirable—and they may need to be changed frequently.
Consistency and predictability are essential.
Be thoughtful and careful before threatening a punishment. “Yes” should always mean yes, and “no” should always mean no. Follow-through that is consistent is very important. Without it, children feel anxious and are more likely to test the waters.
Bad behavior can become rewarding.
Let’s face it, if Mom is on the phone and I scream at my sister, she is liable to hang up and focus the spotlight of her attention on me. Sure I’m going to get in trouble—but at least I’m getting her full attention. In today’s world, with two working parents, attention is in high demand.
Respond, don’t react.
Keeping your cool, minimizing your emotional response to negative behavior, and ignoring some bad behavior keeps things from escalating. Easier said than done!
Allow the natural consequences of bad behavior to occur.
Forgetting to hand in homework will result in your youngster’s teacher saying something. if you leave your sports equipment out in the rain, it might not be usable. Don’t be in a rush to make things “easier” when rough spots will be educational.
Be the person you want your child to be.
This is the hardest. If you want your child to be fair, you must be fair. If you want your youngster to be calm, you must keep your cool. If you want your child to be thoughtful—be reflective. Our kids will model themselves after who we are, not what we say.