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Punishment, Reward, and Other Disciplinary Mistakes

Published: 26 Apr 2022
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Think about the way your parents responded to you when you were challenging as a child. What was their reaction when you were surly, sassy, ornery, or when you chucked a tantrum? How did they engage with you when you challenged their authority, or when you were cruel to a sibling? What was their impulse when you lied, stole, were sneaky, or just plain did the wrong thing? 

Were your parents strict or relaxed? Were they reactive and “emotionally expressive” or did they stay calm, quiet, and considered? Did they have specific ways of “dealing with you” when things weren’t going quite right? 

Carrots and Sticks: The Foundation of Behaviourism

Most of us were brought up by parents who believed in “behaviourism”. They might not have known what it was called, but it’s what they did to raise us. And it’s how they were raised too, and their parents, and their parents before them.

Behaviourism is a branch of psychology that teaches that you can modify behaviour by dangling carrots or waving sticks. It’s a rewards and punishments system of parenting. And a lot of people will tell you that it’s how the world works. If you do the right thing, you keep your job and get paid. That’s a reward. And if you do the wrong thing, you lose your job and your income. That’s a punishment. The same at school. Be good and get the good stuff; be bad and get detention. Carrots and sticks. 

The behaviourist approach was further popularised and systemised throughout the 1970s as parenting programs began to be developed. And the approach is still popular today, for a few reasons. First, because “I was raised like that and I turned out alright”. Second, it just makes sense. It’s logical to us - perhaps because it’s how our world seems to work. Third, it’s a useful way to maintain ‘control’. It offers short-term results, which makes it super convenient. 


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A brief history of awful parenting

A brief look at human history indicates that parents spent a lot of time trying to get out of raising their kids! Sending them off to wet-nurses until they were toddlers, farming them out to “foundling homes”, swaddling infants and toddlers so they couldn’t move, get in the way, or hurt themselves… and having the community do the childrearing: all of these strategies (and far worse) were used to reduce time with children because there was so much else to do.

And when parents did have to raise their children, they were typically seen as a burden. Those kids had to be “broken in” - and then they had to become real contributors to running the home. One of the most influential parenting “experts” of the 1800s was Luther Holt who laid down a strictly regimented schedule that was supposed to make life easier for parents (and perhaps the child?). Holt recommended toilet-training begin at two months of age and soap suppositories be used to get things going down there. He said: 

Infants should be kissed, if at all, upon the cheek or forehead, but the less even of this, the better.

If it cries, he commanded, let it. (Note that the baby was called an “it”.) Holt’s extreme hands off approach encouraged that “babies under six months old should never be played with” because “they are made nervous and irritable, sleep badly, and suffer from indigestion” . Perhaps it was less about the playing and had more to do with the soap suppositories?

In his popular 1928 book, Psychological care of infant and child, John B. Watson, an early pioneer in child rearing psychology, said, 

There is a sensible way of treating children… let your behaviour always be objective and kindly firm. Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinarily good job of a difficult task.

And famously, Watson also said: 

Won’t you then remember when you are tempted to pet your child that mother love is a dangerous instrument? An instrument which may inflict a never healing wound, a wound which may make infancy unhappy, adolescence a nightmare, an instrument which may wreck your adult son or daughter’s vocational future and their chances for marital happiness.

Yikes!


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Watson wrote that the average mother “is unquestionably unfitted to bring up her child” , and argued foster homes would be better for raising children, switched every three weeks so they wouldn’t form attachments. 

His ideas are outrageously bad. But they formed the foundation of the parenting advice that was followed by our great-grandparents, their kids, our parents, and us. 

To put it bluntly, there are not nearly enough generations to wipe out that kind of trauma. But this is the history and foundation of much of our society’s parenting practice. It’s overwhelmingly terrible, and it still informs many parenting ideas that exist today.

(Oh, by the way, Watson believed and practised what he preached too, and unsurprisingly his offspring suffered for it. Several of them attempted and died by suicide.)

We’ve come a long way since then. The past 40-50 years of parenting advice has seen tremendous shifts in honouring the humanity of children, strengthening emotional wellbeing through secure attachments, and supporting kids’ autonomy. But the behavioural roots from a century ago run deep, and they still infiltrate much of how society suggests we raise our kids. Following the old-school parenting practices related to punishment and reward isn’t going to help us progress. Let’s look at why punishment and reward are so unhelpful.

Punishment

If you look up punishment in the dictionary it says:

the infliction of some kind of pain or loss upon a person for a misdeed.

In other words, if you punish someone (your child, for example), you intentionally hurt them. Punishment, also euphemistically called consequences , is about making someone suffer. 

In the eyes of many parents, punishment is a form of justice

In addition to exacting retribution, punishment is often used because it t eaches children a lesson . But what lesson (or lessons) does punishment teach?

One of the starkest observations from modern parenting science is that punishment is a lousy teacher. No child has ever been punished and then thought to himself, “well after that punishment, I’m more convinced than ever that I should try harder to be a good boy.”

Punishment is ultimately destructive. It makes kids angry and resentful. They see the punisher (their parent or teacher) as someone who doesn’t care about them. In fact, often the person being punished sees themselves as a victim! They’ve been judged as having done wrong, they’ve had pain or loss inflicted on them, and now they feel like life is unfair. And this, even if they did the wrong thing themselves!

Punishment also teaches children that “might is right”, that the big person gets what they want because they have power. It makes them feel unworthy. They feel that they’re not a good person, and that they deserve to be treated poorly; harshly.

Studies show us that punishment undermines moral development. Punishment directs children’s attention to the consequences of their actions for themselves rather than thinking about how they’ve hurt someone else. Punishment gets kids thinking about how arbitrary and unfair their parent is, how their disapproval has hurt them, and how scared they are of getting caught - and perhaps how they’re never good enough. The one thing they’re not thinking about is how to process the wrongdoing and become a better person. 

In other words, children don’t do what is good and right because it’s good and right. They do it because they’re worried about what will happen to them if they are caught. When a parent threatens, “Don’t you ever let me catch you doing that again!”, the child thinks, “Don’t worry, I’ll be really sneaky next time so you never catch me.” Punishment and consequences promote temporary compliance and sneaky behaviour.

Most of all, punishment will typically undermine trust in the relationship, and even the relationship itself. 

The idea behind the idea

Many parents understand that punishing their children isn’t ideal. Most would prefer not to do it at all. But there’s still a belief that punishments are required to “teach a lesson” or “exact retribution.” I’m interested in that idea, but I’m more interested in the idea behind that idea. 

Why do we feel the need to hurt our kids to teach them a lesson? Why do we feel it’s necessary to make them pay a price for their clumsy choices, their immaturity, or even their wilful and intentional disobedience?

There are probably many ideas behind the broader idea of punishment:

  • Kids need to be controlled or they’ll destroy everything
  • If I don’t punish my children I’ll look like a bad parent
  • If I don’t do something my children will ruin their lives, the lives of others, and my reputation
  • Retribution is a necessary reality of life 
  • Children don’t learn unless we make the learning memorable - and punishment does that
  • If I don’t punish my child I don’t love them. I only hurt them because I care
  • The only alternative to punishment is permissiveness, and that cannot be tolerated

Each of these ideas could explain why parents punish their children. Each idea is patently false, and some are dangerous. We must reject these beliefs.

And then there are those times when punishment is used simply because a parent wants control. The child hasn’t actually done anything wrong, but the parent doesn’t like the feeling of not being in control. This might happen because things feel out of control elsewhere in their life, or it might happen because of previous trauma and a dysfunctional need for control. 


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Rewards 

In his 1993 book, Punished by Rewards, polemic author, Alfie Kohn, describes how we generally accept the harm done by punishment, but we are typically unaware that rewards can be just as harmful. He cites 5 reasons that rewards are bad:

  • Rewards Punish: The promise of a reward is the threat of a punishment. “Eat your dinner and you can have ice-cream” has just become a veiled threat of “If you don’t eat your dinner you’ll miss out on dessert.” 
  • Rewards Rupture Relationships: Kohn makes the point that relationships become transactional if we become the reward dispenser. It’s even worse in competitive situations. A teacher, boss, or parent, who only gives rewards to those who satisfy their demands creates an environment where those who miss out hate their siblings, classmates, or colleagues for always winning, and who either suck up to the person in charge (parent, teacher, boss) to get the rewards, or hate them for never handing them in their direction.
  • Rewards Ignore Reasons: The argument here is simple. If you tell your kids to “do this and I’ll give you that”, they’re not really interested in what they have to do. It’s all about the reward. When kids understand why , they’ll be less interested in the reward. “If you get an A on your exam I’ll give you $100” translates to “What matters to me is your results and I’ll pay you to get them.” A better approach would be to encourage learning because it’s exciting to learn.
  • Rewards Reduce Risk-Taking: If I’m promised a reward for doing something well, I’m less inclined to push harder, be more creative, or take risks. I’m going to stick with the high percentage play because the reward is at risk if I make mistakes. Removing rewards encourages risk-taking and creativity because experimentation and error doesn’t have the same cost.
  • Rewards Undermine Motivation: This may be the most damaging reward-related issue. Research shows that people who are chasing rewards are more likely to produce inferior work, show reduced problem-solving skills, have lower levels of creativity, and show reduced commitment to challenging tasks. Kohn states that “one of the most thoroughly researched findings in social psychology is that the more you reward someone for doing something, the less interest that person will tend to have in whatever he or she was rewarded to do.” And let’s be clear: rewards are counterfeits for real intrinsic rewards like creativity, job satisfaction, and self-improvement. (That says a lot about the value of much of the work that is required of kids - and adults - but that’s for another article.)

Extrinsic Motivators

At the heart of both punishment and reward is this reality: we use them to “motivate” our kids; to gain compliance. Ultimately, they’re the same thing though. Whether we dangle carrots or brandish sticks, we are essentially saying (to quote Kohn again):

Do this and you’ll get that

Notice that if you say it with a smile, it’s a bribe; the promise of a reward. 

And notice if you say it with a frown or a sneer in your voice, it’s a threat; the promise of pain and punishment. 

Same concept. It’s all about context. Am I promising or threatening?

What this highlights is that we cannot motivate someone without manipulation. And if we’re manipulating them, they’re not motivated to do anything except get the goody or dodge the pain. It’s not real motivation.

The central premise underlying both punishment and reward is control. And control is bad for kids. Control that is punitive has many negative consequences. Rewards, on the other hand, are merely “control through seduction”, as Ed Deci and Rich Ryan, two motivation researchers, have stated.

High Quality Parenting

If we’re going to consider ditching punishment and reward, that means we’re looking at removing all threats and punitive actions including yelling, time-outs, withdrawal of privileges, and smacking. Plus we’re removing bribes and praise. 

What’s a parent got left to get kids to do as they’re told?

The best parenting is not about making our children do things. It’s true that since none of us is perfect, we probably will still rely on those strategies in our “weaker moments”. But there are better ways. 

High quality parenting consists of three key things. 

  1. Involvement: The best parents are involved in their children’s lives. They provide appropriate care, supervision, and monitoring. It’s not so much about surveillance as it is, awareness of where their children are and what they’re doing, along with support in times of need.
  2. Structure: The best parents provide structures and safety for their children. This involves talking with them about challenges they may face (pre-arming) such as friendship difficulties, values-clashes, pornography, and so on, and then working with them on solutions for keeping them safe. Structure is also about rhythm and routine. By creating predictability we give our kids a sense of security and safety.
  3. Autonomy Support: The best parents offer support for their children to make their own decisions (in a developmentally appropriate way) so that they are not forever reliant on the grown-ups to dictate their every choice.

But the very highest-quality parenting happens when parents observe the following principles and practices as they carry out those three tasks:

First, the best parents remember that their children experience the world in a manner entirely different to the way they, as parents, experience it. 

The way they see a move to a new suburb, a fresh start at school, a day at the beach with friends, or the promise of a movie on the weekend is completely different to the way we see it as adults. Similarly, the way they hear a threat, experience a “time-out”, or feel a smack/spank is not the same as the way we hear, experience, or feel dishing it out to them.

Brene Brown says that empathy is a function of experience. When something seems like the end of the world to our kids, it’s because they haven’t yet experienced enough to have the perspective to see that it is not. But we forget how to have empathy, which leads us to principle number two.

Second, the best parents recognise that because their experience is different to that of their child, they must do their best to tune into their children’s perspectives often . They pause and wonder “how will my child feel?” or “what will my child’s response to this be?”. Perhaps they actually stop and ask them!

Third, the best parents are interested in helping children have their needs met consistently rather than being preoccupied with their own needs, agenda, and priorities . This doesn’t mean they pamper and indulge a child by giving them all that they “want”. It’s a focus on needs . This is a move away from making parenting convenient, but it’s powerful for growing a long-term relationship with our child, and helping them feel secure and resilient.

That’s a high benchmark to live up to. And many of us struggle to get there much of the time. 

Some years ago I became annoyed at my own children. It was a cold day. I was cold. And I bluntly told the kids that they needed to put on some warm clothing. They insisted that they weren’t cold. But I knew better! After all, I was shivering and I had three layers of clothing on. I pushed harder. 

You’re telling me that you’re not cold, but it’s freezing. Now go put some warm clothes on!

I failed to see their experience of the cold as different to mine. I failed to consider how my children felt. And I failed to focus on their needs as they ran around and played. I made my parenting all about me and how I felt. And I became punitive and controlling - and thus, a lousy parent.


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Parenting in Public

It becomes even more difficult when we’re out in public, facing scrutiny and judgement from parents in parks or shopping centres, and our child becomes “difficult”. When a child is losing it in the middle of a shopping centre and all eyes are focused on us, we easily forget to that:

  • Our child’s experience of the shops is different to ours, 
  • We aren’t tuned in to their perspective, and
  • Meeting their basic needs will be the best solution

Instead, we often interpret their outburst as “misbehaviour” and step into command and control mode. We increase our demandingness. We decrease our love, warmth, nurture, and connection. 

In this scenario and hundreds of others like it, whether in public or even in the privacy of our own home, it takes a lot of effort to remember that what matters most is responding effectively to the unmet needs of our child rather than stopping the “problem behaviour” (or appearing competent in the eyes of strangers).

So what are we to do?

7 Steps to Getting Discipline Right

At the start of this article I asked you to reflect on the habits your parents relied on when responding to your challenging behaviour. No doubt, there were all kinds of different responses, depending on a number of factors. But reflect for a moment and ask:

“How did it feel for me when my parents ‘disciplined’ me?”

“What did I most want and need from my parents?”

“Could they have responded differently and more helpfully?”

Chances are that much of what we do is based on what was done to us. It’s our job to push that stuff out of the way and shift our discipline to something that is about helping rather than hurting. 

The following seven steps will help shift your discipline in a positive direction:

1. Manage Expectations

Is your child struggling because of motivation or ability? Punishing them for doing something wrong when they don’t have the developmental capability to do it is grossly unfair. And dangling a reward isn’t much better.

2. Look after yourself

You won’t deal well with your child if you’re exhausted and hungry and stressed and out of control. Parents become more controlling (using punishments and rewards) when their lives are spiralling. 

3. Stay Balanced

High emotions = low intelligence. Keep your emotions in check and you’ll always do a better job talking with your child about their challenging behaviours.

4. Remember what Discipline Means 

Discipline is about teaching and helping; guiding our children to better behaviour.

5. See the World Through Their Eyes

Our children see the world differently to us. They experience it differently. Become attuned and acknowledge their view is as real for them as your view is for you.

6. Work with Them

If an adult you cared about was struggling you wouldn’t bribe them or threaten them. You’d sit down and work things through. Try that with your kids - once their emotions are level and balanced.

7. Utilise the 3 Es

Explore, explain, and empower. These strategies will take longer than a time-out or bribe - in the short term. But the more we work with our children, empower them to discover the best way forward, and patiently guide them, the faster our discipline processes become, until our kids are self-disciplined, which is the best form of discipline there is.

The ideas of behaviourism make sense to us because that’s all we’ve traditionally known. But when we change the way things have always been, we change the results we’ve always had. New ideas can make sense, and they can be effective.

One of my favourite studies that shows this comes from a researcher named Laura Padilla-Walker. Dr Walker’s research showed that when parents move away from the behavioural approach that treats children like pigeons, rats, dogs, or seals, and towards a more human approach like the one I’ve described here, children thrive. They choose better friends, behave more pro-socially, engage with delinquent behaviour as well as alcohol and other drugs less, and they do better at school! Decades of data that looks at autonomy support in parenting points in the same direction. When we change our parenting, we change the world. 

Ultimately parenting and discipline decisions are actually not about your child. They’re decisions about what kind of person you want to be. We can choose to be the kinds of people who manipulate environments to gain compliance from our kids. Or we can be the kinds of people who are compassionate and patient, and who see the humanity and capacity of our children, and guide them to finding it out for themselves.


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