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Parenting beyond punishment and reward

Raising a child to become a responsible adult is not easy. It requires immense patience and commitment from parents. There is no singular tried-and-tested method to raise children right, which makes parenting even more challenging. After all, every child is unique, and so is every parent. As a child grows, parents grow with them—learning from their mistakes and figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

Perhaps, one of the most challenging aspects of parenting is to encourage good behaviour in children and discipline them when they go astray. From a young age, at home and at school, parents and teachers instil in children sound morals, teach them how to behave appropriately in their social environment and what it means to be a human. Traditionally, parents and teachers have resorted to a system of rewards and punishments to appreciate or disapprove a particular behaviour. But, how effective is the punishment-and-reward style of parenting?

As parenting expert, Alfie Kohn writes in his blog, “Research and logic suggest that punishment and rewards are not really opposites, but two sides of the same coin. Both strategies amount to ways of trying to manipulate someone’s behaviour—in one case, prompting the question, What do they want me to do, and what happens to me if I don’t do it? and in the other instance, leading a child to ask, What do they want me to do, and what do I get for doing it? Neither strategy helps children to grapple with the question, What kind of person do I want to be?”

Until a few decades ago, punishment—verbal abuse, physical infliction of pain, grounding or taking away a privilege—was the usual way to elicit compliance. However, researches have now concluded that punishments, in general, do more harm than good.

Physical punishment, especially, affects the mental wellbeing of children. A research paper titled Physical punishment of children: lessons from 20 years of research says, “Physical punishment is associated with a range of mental health problems in children, youth and adults, including depression, unhappiness, anxiety, feelings of hopelessness, use of drugs and alcohol, and general psychological maladjustment.” Additionally, avoiding punishment becomes the motivating factor for children to behave better. So, they resort to behaving badly when they think no one is watching them.

An excerpt from Punishment: Problems and negative side effects published by New York-based St Bonaventure University says, “The offender may learn to inhibit the punished response during surveillance, but once surveillance ends there is no internal control mechanism to continue inhibiting the behaviour.” Such sneaky behaviour only destabilises the mental balance as children are then constantly trying to juggle between the two.

Just the way punishment does not teach a child right from wrong, nor does reward. A reward plan consisting of stickers and gold stars, privileges and praises, may prompt instant compliance, but ultimately does not motivate a child to behave well intrinsically. When the rewards stop, children too stop behaving appropriately.

The more children feel heard and understood, the less likely are they to misbehave.


Worse, rewards often cause children to lose interest in whatever they were rewarded for doing. Kohn in another of his case studies mentions young children were introduced to an unfamiliar beverage. Some were just asked to drink it, others were praised lavishly for doing so and the third group was promised treats if it drank enough. Kohn observes, “Those children who received either verbal or tangible rewards consumed more of the beverage than other children, as one might predict. But a week later these children found the drink significantly less appealing than they did before, whereas children who were offered no rewards liked it just as much as, if not more than, they had earlier.” This shows that exercising control over children through bribe does not work in the long run.

Given how neither punishment nor reward motivates a child to intrinsically become better, how then should parents inculcate appropriate behaviour in their children? Here are a few tips from various parenting experts to go beyond punishment and reward:

Establish a strong connection with children

The easiest way to elicit cooperation from children is to build a deep connection with them, says parenting expert Kate Orson in an article titled What To Do Instead Of Punishment And Reward. Children have a natural inclination to laugh and play. So, by spending adequate time playing and having fun with them, we can easily earn their trust and forge that deep connection. Let the child in you come alive when you’re with the little ones—it’s then that we understand children better and get what they’re trying to convey, assures Orson.

Empathise, listen

Usually when a child misbehaves, there is an underlying unresolved emotional reason. And throwing a tantrum is one of the ways children express their pent-up emotions to grab a parent’s attention. So, the first step is to empathise with the upset child, even if the reason seems trivial, suggests psychotherapist Heather Turgeon—who writes on parenting and child development. The more children feel heard and understood, the less likely are they to misbehave. They’d automatically calm down and become okay, she says.

Respect and empower children

Expecting children to comply with rules and regulations and rebuking them when they fail to do so can affect their self-esteem and confidence. Instead, the more we treat a child as a capable individual, the more they are likely to feel motivated to behave appropriately and cooperate with adults, according to parent coach Alessandra Rodel. When children feel empowered, they learn to become resilient and regulate their emotions. This naturally reduces the chances of them misbehaving at a time of distress.

Model behaviour

“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them,” wrote novelist James Baldwin. Children are essentially like sponges, soaking up information from their environment. So, even if they appear to not pay attention, we can rest assured that they are observing us. If we want our children to behave appropriately and be respectful towards elders, we need to show it to them, says psychotherapist Amy Morin in an article titled Role Model the Behavior You Want to See From Your Kids. Of course, it is not easy to model appropriate behaviour in front of children all the time. However, the more we consciously try, the more it would help to influence them.

Take some time out when stressed

It is wise to step aside when you’re stressed and accept that being a ‘perfect’ parent is next to impossible. Taking time off to do something that you enjoy when you’re upset with your children has its own benefits. One, you show them how to channel anger constructively; two, you do not inadvertently make them to fear your temper; and three, when you speak to them after you’ve calmed down, you communicate better.

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