Why punishment and rewards don’t really work with our kids

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Punishments, rewards, threats and bribes may not be the best solution.
Why do we always resort to that and what are our alternatives?

 Generation after generation, humanity has taught that good behavior should be rewarded (do good and earn a sticker or a prize!) while bad behavior will be punished (time outs and detention). We bribe and we threaten to incentivize, but in the real world, they are illegal. Is it possible that rather than really teaching a lesson the punishments, rewards, threats and bribes teach our children to be afraid of getting caught, to obey authority (even when they’re wrong) and perform good deeds for recognition? Centuries of harnessing this belief hasn’t made our world more peaceful or the people in it happier, fulfilled, accountable, responsible, moral, nor treat each other with more human dignity and kindness. 

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But, we want our children to cooperate, communicate, have patience, respect, responsibility, accountability, human dignity, understand boundaries, cause and effect, know right from wrong and more. So, what do we do?

I have found there are 4 common reasons (reflected below) why parents feel the need to punish, reward, threaten and bribe, but they also readily admit that these tactics don’t necessarily work. When we understand truly what we are trying to achieve then we can reframe those challenging moments, to reflect, teach and strengthen our connection with our children! about:blank

  1. I need to show my children who is in control, set limits and boundaries, and assert my authority, BUT I don’t feel good when I punish, bribe, threaten and reward, and it doesn’t usually work. REFRAME: I want to be heard and feel respected. I want my children to trust my judgment and understand that when I say “no” there is a reason. They need to understand actions have consequences.
  2. My children need to understand that they can’t get away with certain behavior and I need to teach them a lesson BUT 9/10 times these tactics don’t really teach my child anything, or keep them from having the same conflict again. REFRAME: I feel embarrassed and astonished that my kids would behave this way. They can’t go out into the world and behave like that. They need to learn responsibility, safety, and to be a contributing member of society.
  3. It is the only way I can get my child to (fill in the blank), BUT it doesn’t really help to grow and deepen my connection and trust with my child. I also wonder how it makes my child feel about themselves. REFRAME: I need cooperation and communication and I want to build that from trust and respect.
  4. I don’t know what else to do BUT I feel I am doing more harm than help. REFRAME: I am losing my patience and feel frustrated, and I want to figure out how to handle this in the best way.

These reframes open us up to unlimited possibilities, because they move us out of blaming our children and into a clear understanding of what we want to accomplish in our relationship with our children.
Here are a few guidelines which can be game changers:

  1. Have patience with yourself. You don’t lose credibility by taking some distance; quick fixes usually lead to punishment, bribe, threaten or reward. 
  2. Once you have calmed down, remember, as the parent of your child, you have within you, the capacity and ability to figure out how to solve any of their challenges.
  3. Your children KNOW how to behave, they just need help bringing out the best version of themselves.
  4. Your child is acting out because they want to be heard, get their needs met (hungry, tired, need to feel independent or accepted), or something else happened prior to this moment which is still bothering them.
  5. Communicate your own feelings; why their behavior or speech is making you uncomfortable. I feel uncomfortable with the way you acted because (insert your worries, stress, anger).
  6. Here are some questions and comment to use to builds communication and empowerment:
    1. It looks like you might be feeling ____ (angry, sad, frustrated), is that right? Do you want to talk about it, or do you need some space?
    2. Did something happen earlier today that might be bothering you?
    3. I know you know how important it is for our family to be (insert family value here i.e.; respectful, kind, hard-working etc…), can we think of an alternative way to handle a challenge like this in the future? 
    4. What do you need from me to support you?
  7. Talk about what they did not who they are. (The dirty dishes on the table make the house messy, NOT you are so messy).
  8. Interact with your child with empathy, compassion and understanding; in the way you would like an authority position to interact with you if you were to make a mistake.

Ultimately, our goal is all the same; to build lasting relationships with our children and create an environment where our children can thrive and grow into the best possible person they can be. Our homes are a microcosm of the world for our children. It may require extra patience, research, support, and asking questions but if we focus on building communication, connection, and trust then we will find we don’t need to resort to more. 


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