What To Do Instead Of Punishment And Reward

Guest Post by Kate Orson

Parenting is a bit of a free for all when it comes to experts offering advice. There are a gazzillion different parenting approaches out there, and there’s no rules about what can be presented as solid parenting advice. Parents get so confused and frustrated that they often decide to throw away all their books and just go with their instincts.

On the one hand that can actually be a good thing. With so much contradictory advice out there, parents need to hold onto their instincts and judgement of what feels good and right for your family. Whoever that expert is, each one is a fallible human being who might be wrong about some aspects of their approach. You, the parent, are the best expert on your family.

On the other hand sometimes our instincts get a bit tangled up with our desperation for peace, an end to sibling struggles, and a good night’s sleep, with our own hurt and pain that we carry from our childhood, and how we were treated by our own parents. Sometimes our desperation to find something that actually works, can lead as trying things that we aren’t completely comfortable, or that aren’t as effective as other parenting methods.

This is often the case with punishment, reward, and consequences. These methods can appear to work quickly and effectively. A child stops hitting their sister to avoid a time out, or a child does their homework to get a sticker, or some extra time watching TV. But this quick fix is deceptive.

When we take a look at the science of what’s happening we see a different story. 

For example in the case of rewards, research studies show that rewarding children for behaviour destroys intrinsic motivation, and makes it less likely that the behaviour will occur in the future. For example in one study of classrooms it was found that many teachers used rewards to encourage children to play learning games, but when the rewards were no longer available children lost interest in the games. However in classrooms where children could choose what they did, many happily played with the same games. (https://bingschool.stanford.edu/news/mark-lepper-intrinsic-motivation-extrinsic-motivation-and-process-learning.)

I call rewards, punishment and consequences the credit card style of parenting. You get quick and easy instant results,  but the long term payback is higher than if you hadn’t used them in the first place. Parenting becomes harder and harder work, as we have to think up more enticing rewards, or more threatening consequences as children get older and the stakes are raised.

In Toddler Calm, parent educator Sarah Ockwell Smith tells of how one day she asked her 8 year old son to the lay the table, and he asked her what he would get in return. It was then that she realised that this way of parenting is all about ‘transactions;’ giving and getting, and she began searching for a way to parent that focused on her  relationships with her children instead.

Rewards, punishment and consequences are ineffective in the long run, because they don’t get to the heart of why children sometimes behave in ‘off-track’ ways; their feelings.

The latest neuroscience into how children’s minds work suggests that they ‘misbehave’ when they aren’t feeling good, when upset feelings get in the way of their thinking. When a child hits a sibling, throws their dinner on the floor, or refuses to follow our requests it’s because they can no longer think clearly.

Science tells us that what children need in those moments, isn’t threats or bribes or consequences, but connection; a chance to have those feeling listened to, to express what’s bothering them, and to feel close to us again.

Parenting based on connection can be seen as ‘investment’ parenting.  When we give a ‘misbehaving’ child attention, we are giving them what they need to get their thinking and behaviour back on track.

You might be wondering how exactly can you use connection to ‘discipline’ a child. Don’t you need lectures, and carrot and stick type incentives to get children to do what they’re supposed to do, or not to do what they’re not supposed to do? How can you parent simply by being ‘nice’? Here’s a few tips to get started with parenting by connection.

  1. Special Time. Spend time with your kids. Set a timer, for ten or fifteen minutes and tell your child you’ll be with them and play whatever they want.  Connection breeds co-operation. In one research study 14 month old babies were more likely to pick up a dropped object and hand it back to a person, if they’d been bounced to music by that person beforehand. This shows that our relationships with our children are the basis of co-operation.
  2. Laugh and Play. Embrace children’s natural inclination to laugh and play. When they don’t want to get dressed, then try dressing them by putting their socks on their hands, or their trousers on your legs. If they won’t eat their peas then try to eat them yourself and have them keep falling off your fork. A few giggles deepen connection, and co-operation follows.
  3. Listen to tears. Crying and tantrums can seem like an inconvenience, but it’s actually a healthy and very natural healing process. Crying is how your child releases stress and tension, so they don’t express their feelings indirectly through ‘misbehaviour.’ Empathising with the upset, even if the reason for it seems small is actually much more important than trying to fix the situation. Often when children cry about something small like the colour of their socks, or because their cookie got broken, it’s usually because they are releasing a backlog of emotional upsets.
  4. Don’t Be Afraid To Say No. Saying no and giving your child a clear boundary is an important part of parenting. When children are acting in ‘off-track’ ways, there’s usually an emotional reason behind it. When we set a limit on the behaviour caused by the emotions, but listen and empathise with the emotions, we allow our child to actually the release the cause of that misbehaviour! This means, by saying no we are not only preventing off-track behaviour in the moment but preventing it from recurring too.
  5. Nurture yourself and Get Support. When we struggle with parenting, when we shout or lose it, it’s usually a sign that we’re feeling stressed ourselves. Do anything that makes you feel good. When you are having a hard time with parenting, don’t beat yourself up. Reframe it, and ask yourself how you can take care of yourself better. The way we were parented ourselves, punishments, shouting, and harshness, become internalised, so our first step to more peaceful parenting, is to be kind to ourselves.

Think of it as good practise for being kind to our kids!

Kate Orson is a Hand in Hand Parenting instructor and author of Tears Heal: How to Listen to Our Children. Originally from the UK, she now lives in Switzerland where she teaches parenting workshops and offers consultations both in person, and online. Follow her blog or connect with her on Facebook.

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