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.