This might sound like total heresy. Most of us were raised with the idea of getting a reward for certain things like good behaviour, doing our homework, walking the dog. Perhaps we got an allowance that was contingent on certain chores, or grades at school. The opposite of rewards was probably some sort of punishment which, in the best situation might range from a “time-out” to being grounded or losing special privileges when we didn’t do as we were supposed to do . It can be hard for us to conceive of how to train our own children without access to these tools. Isn’t reward and punishment central to training anyone to do anything?
Not according to some of the visionary authors I have been reading lately, and their approach resonates with me so completely, I really want to share it so you can at least think about whether it can work for you and your family.
Great thinkers like Patty Wipfler of handinhandparenting.org, Gordon Neufeld of neufeldinstitute.org, and Kim John Payne of simplicityparenting.com are suggesting that we need to find better ways of setting (and enforcing) appropriate limits for our kids and to re-think the old reward/punishment paradigm of parenting. I ask you to think carefully about this – if you ever used a “star-chart” system in your house, did it eventually result in not needing to hold out a carrot any more? Did it produce a child who eventually internalized the values of cooperation, fair play, sharing or kindness you were intending to inculcate? Let’s face it, every parent may need to offer a treat to get a kid through a difficult moment like a wedding, a school concert or a long car ride but over-reliance on offering rewards can easily create an “entitlement monster”. This is a child who feels he/she deserves to be rewarded for anything and everything. This is a child who becomes a master negotiator and will hold you hostage with greater frequency and fervour over time. This type of child will balance the unpleasantness of a given punishment against the pleasure of being in complete control of any situation, of getting or doing what they want.
Rigid or frequent punishment can make kids very insecure because they can’t help repeating situations where they feel unloved. In particular, it can create a child who bullies others as a way to re-write his own inner history of feeling unfairly treated. In the best case scenario, kids who are over-punished may just learn better ways of not getting caught!
Reward-based training seems logical to us because it comes from the world of animal training. Dogs and horses are routinely trained with rewards to learn certain behaviours and if properly applied, it works in almost every case. The problem is that our children are not pets and they are not farm animals. We want them to grow into caring, responsible people. For this to happen, they need firm and reasonable boundaries as well as the security of feeling loved unconditionally. You may believe that you love your child unconditionally, but using reward and punishment as significant parenting tools are sending a different message. You are actually signalling that you love him when he does as you ask, and you send her away from you when she goes astray.
Reward and punishment have a remarkable effect on us as the parent-administrators of them. They make us feel like we know what we are doing in this They keep us connected to our own experiences of being parented, whether we liked being loved in that way or not. Try to remember a time when you were disciplined. How did you feel about that? Has it left a lasting memory of self-reflection, of wanting to do better? Maybe more like a combination of bewilderment and bitterness.
We can learn to do better. All the websites listed above, and the wonderful books those authors have given us teach us practical and effective ways to move away from the reward and punishment paradigm and toward raising secure, intelligent, compassionate young people.