Effective Discipline: Reward vs. Punishment
When my daughter Naomi was little, she was a spirited child. (Now she is a spirited adult!). She was not a member of the “get along gang”. In kindergarten, she refused to sit on the “line” during story time. She often insisted on getting her way, and like many parents, we often felt frustrated and helpless. We didn’t want to squash her exuberant spirit, but we did want to have a little more day-to-day cooperation.
When she was having one of her “episodes” (that’s what we called them), we would sometimes threaten to take away various toys or privileges. In those moments, we could have taken away everything she valued to no avail. When she was upset, it didn’t make any difference what consequences we threatened. And afterwards, when we did follow through on our punishment, it didn’t seem to do much to prevent another outbreak of bad behavior!
What we observed, is that punishment rarely worked as a system for improving her behavior. Why not?
Behavioral psychology has thoroughly studied how we learn. We learn by modeling ourselves after others and by contingencies (or what happens when we do something). “Negative” reinforcement or punishment is not terribly effective for changing behavior. It works somewhat--but to also can invoke anxiety or fear. It is the “might makes right” school of discipline, and it has the tendency to foster aggressive or fearful behavior. This is not to say that there shouldn’t be natural and logical consequences for conduct.
Think about this on the adult stage. Suppose your boss docked your pay every time you did something he or she didn’t want you to do. How would that work? How would you feel about your job? How would you feel about your boss? It might discourage you from doing what she didn’t want, but would it help you do a better job? Fearful of losing pay, you might have increased anxiety about doing the wrong thing!
Now think of the opposite. Suppose your boss gave you a small bonus every time you did something right. How would that feel? How do you feel when your supervisor points out, what a great job you are doing? Positive contingencies are much more powerful in shaping and changing behavior.
Why should children be any different? They aren’t. They respond much better to rewards, than to punishments. As I have said in a previous post, consistency and predictability are necessary. Rewarding positive behavior, whenever it appears, can be a very powerful tool for encouraging cooperation and cultivating community minded deeds.
So give this a try:
- Decide what behaviors you want to nurture in your child.This is actually a more difficult job than you think. I felt that honesty was very important. I also wanted our kids to be community minded (to think about the welfare of the group, rather than just their own needs). Try to keep it simple. Identify which behaviors actually represent the values you want to grow.
- Reward those behaviors whenever your child comes close to performing them. When your child hangs up her coat, put’s sister’s toy away, tries hard to complete a homework problem, solves a problem with a friend, etc. give her an “atta girl”, some positive attention, a small reward, special time with you, etc. Figure out what rewards will be meaningful to her. You may have to change them frequently if they lose their value.
- Don’t forget consistency and predictability. Without that, you won’t get the results you hope for.
Share your successes with positive reinforcement!