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The downside of rewarding and punishing your kids

Are your kids cooperative contributing members of your family or are you forever trying to get them to do the right thing and help out?

A common way parents try to influence their child’s behaviour is through rewards and punishments. Rewards can include: praise, a sticker on a chart, TV or electronic games time or even financial rewards as an incentive to behave a certain way. Punishments can include: a stern talking to, time out, loss of privileges and even harsher punishments for really ‘bad’ behaviour.

The downside of rewarding and punishing your kids

Are you stuck in a cycle of rewards and punishments? And, if so is this the way you want to relate to your child?

Using a system of rewards or punishment, it basically goes like this:

If you do ‘your homework’, then you will get ‘TV time’ or if don’t do ‘your chores’ you won’t get ‘to go out this weekend’! Wouldn’t it be fabulous if you could simply say “can please do your homework” and your child said “sure, no problem” because they want to not because they will either gain a privilege or lose one. Another name for reward/punishment parenting is ‘conditional’ or ‘transactional’ parenting.

Now when you put it that way, it doesn’t sound so good does it? Transactional parenting sounds more like a business arrangement and is no fun for parents or children. It doesn’t feel like what a family is about.

Let’s face it - what parents really want are children who are cooperative members of a family and contribute to all aspects of family life in a positive way because they want to. Right? So how can we achieve this?

Up to now the main approach used in families is to punish and reward to get children to do the right thing. The down side is that kids see your love as conditional – you give love when they behave well in the form of positive attention and praise and then withdraw love when they behave in a way that is unacceptable to you.

Now you and I both know that you LOVE them all the time – even when you send them to their room, give them a good talking too or walk away from them – but do your children know you love them? All they experience is your disappointment or anger and withdrawal of love. Doesn’t look or feel like love does it?

BUT what if there was another way? What if there was a way that didn’t involve a focus on good/bad behaviour, punishment/rewards and giving and withdrawing love. I know that is an approach that interests me and I have been doing quite a bit of research on the topic since the day I realised that there is another way.


I presented at a parenting conference - P2.0 Talks - in San Diego, California. I met many wonderful parenting educators at the conference and I gave a talk about an incident with our son which transformed the way I saw my role as a parent - away from focussing on behaviours, rewards, punishments or disciplines to a life skills approach to parenting.

This has been so empowering and liberating for me as a parent – to see myself as our son’s life skills coach!

Basically, in one moment, I realised that our Cameron is learning to navigate the world and my job is to help and support him so he can learn all of the key life skills that will help him lead a great life and be a cooperative and loving member of our family.

What a relief... how empowering... how loving... now I didn't need to see our son as having good behaviour or bad behaviour but simply needing support to acquire the skills to navigate life and to be the best person he can become. So instead of seeing his actions as a behavioural issue that needs reward/punishment... and let’s face it, who likes punishing /disciplining their child - this is no fun at all for anyone -  so I instead look for which life skills he’s missing and how I can best support him to develop them with … you know… ‘patience and love’ …well of course I try my best even though I don't always succeed first time.

So that is another point, it's OK to make mistakes. You can’t always be the perfect parent!

In the video, I also talk about how parents can show their kids that it’s OK to make mistakes as a parent. In this way I get to have a second chance and have 'a do-over' to try again in a more supportive way when I make parenting mistakes. Are you OK with making mistakes? If you can accept that you make mistakes … perhaps you can be more tolerant and forgiving when your child, partner, friends and family members make mistakes too.

Because I readily model for my child that it is OK to make mistakes, my child learns another key life skill: that it is OK to make mistakes, to say sorry and to have another turn to do better. That is a process called 'learning' and ‘feedback’ as we all work towards life skills mastery – parents and children alike!

Many people use rewards charts so perhaps we don’t have to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’ and we can use ‘rewards’ charts in a supportive way. For example, what if a chart is used where the focus is not about rewards but instead it’s a chart to support and measure the effort and progress of a child when learning a new life skill (like self-discipline in completing homework; or being a loving, cooperative and contributing member of a family by doing chores; or learning about respectful communication with family and friends). If the chart is used to inspire, motivate and support a child’s learning, self-esteem and self-efficacy so they see themselves slowly mastering a life skill over time and if the chart recognises efforts as well as progress not just achievements - then this kind of chart sounds like a great tool as part of a loving family environment!


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