Effective discipline: Why rewards work better than punishment

When my daughter Naomi was little, she was a spirited child. She wasn’t a member of the “get-along gang.” In pre-school, she refused to take a nap. 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 frustrated, tired, hungry or anxious, she could have a major meltdown. We would 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 having one of these episodes, it didn’t make any difference what consequences we threatened, And, afterwards, when we did follow through on our punishment, it didn’t do anything to prevent another outburst.

What we observed, like many parents, is that punishment rarely works as a system for improving 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 it can also evoke anger, anxiety or fear. Positive reinforcement, on the other hand, provides a reward for when you do things right.

Think about this in adult life. 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 imagine the opposite. Suppose your boss gave you a bonus every time you did something right. How would you feel? How do you feel when your supervisor points out what a great job you’re doing? Positive contingencies or reinforcement are much more powerful in shaping and changing behavior.

Why should children be any different? They respond much better to rewards than to punishments. It’s still important for moms and dads to be consistent and predictable. 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 a more difficult job than you think. Try to keep it simple. Identify which behaviors represent the values you want to nurture. Work on one behavior at a time.

Reward those behaviors whenever your child comes close to performing them. When your child hangs up her coat, puts her toys away, tries hard to complete a homework problem, solve a conflict with a friend, etc. give her an “atta girl,” some positive attention, a small reward, special time with you. Figure out what rewards have a high value. You may have to change up the rewards from time to time if they lose their worth.

Be consistent and predictable. Parents often give up too soon if they don’t see immediate results. Give it time. Look for small wins.

The best consequences are natural and logical. My spirited daughter, at 14, had an illicit party at our house when we were away. I didn’t ground her, but made her call every parent, while I listened, and apologize to the parents for lying to them. She was embarrassed and humiliated. Needless to say, it never happened again.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www. everettclinic.com/ healthwellness-library.html.

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