As parents, we all want our children to behave well and make good choices. Traditionally, most of us have been taught to use punishment and reward systems to encourage good behavior and discourage misbehavior. Previous generations believed in ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’. Corporal punishment was a viable and often used strategy to keep kids in line – and teach them a lesson. My mom had a wooden spoon that she would threaten her six children with ~ but that threat simply told us she was at the end of her rope and we needed to behave. It worked. And she never used that spoon for anything more than waving it in the air! But my friend’s father had a belt that he threatened his daughters with, and they were not as lucky as we were. Thank goodness that kind of punishment is no longer acceptable for parents or teachers to use.
Here is how things have developed over the past 60 years or so:
In the 1960s and 1970s, behaviorism (Skinner) was the dominant theory of psychology, which focused on external, observable behavior and the use of rewards and punishments to shape it. This led to the widespread use of behavior modification techniques in schools and homes, such as token economies, behavior charts, and contingency contracts
In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a shift towards cognitive and developmental theories of psychology, which emphasized the importance of internal processes like thinking and motivation. This led to a greater focus on strategies that aimed to build children’s intrinsic motivation and self-regulation, such as using natural consequences, encouraging autonomy, and fostering a growth mindset.
More recently, there has been a growing awareness of the potential negative effects of traditional behavior management strategies, such as the promotion of extrinsic motivation, the erosion of intrinsic motivation, and the reinforcement of power imbalances (parents usually hold the power over the child).As a result, many educators and parents are turning to alternative approaches, such as positive discipline, restorative justice, and trauma-informed care, which prioritize empathy, connection, and emotional regulation over punishment and control.
Why Do Children Misbehave?
It’s important to understand why children misbehave in the first place. Common reasons include seeking attention, expressing emotions, testing boundaries, and feeling overwhelmed. Punishments and rewards may work in the short term, but they do not address the underlying reasons for misbehavior. Instead, alternative strategies focus on teaching children how to make good choices and behave well on their own (intrinsic motivation).
Experts now argue that punishment and reward systems can actually do more harm than good in the long run. So, what are some alternative parenting strategies that can help us correct our children’s misbehavior without resorting to punishments and rewards?
Why Punishment Is Not An Effective Solution:
- Punishment focuses on what not to do, rather than what to do: Punishment does not teach children the appropriate behavior to replace the misbehavior. It only highlights what they should not do, which may not be clear to the child.
- Punishment can lead to resentment: Children who are punished may feel resentment towards the punisher, leading to a negative relationship between the child and the punisher.
- Punishment may not be consistent: Inconsistency in the use of punishment can lead to confusion and make it less effective. If the same behavior results in punishment one time but not the other, it can be unclear to the child what will happen next time.
- Punishment does not address the root cause of misbehavior: Often, misbehavior is a symptom of an underlying issue such as stress, anxiety, or boredom. Punishing the child does not address these underlying causes.
- Punishment does not teach self-regulation: Punishment does not teach children how to regulate their own behavior in the future. They may simply avoid the punished behavior in the presence of the punisher, rather than developing self-control and the ability to regulate their own behavior.
Alfie Kohan says this about rewards and punishment:
Rewards and punishments can be counterproductive in the long run, as they can undermine children’s intrinsic motivation and desire to learn and grow.
Rewards can create a “what’s in it for me?” mentality, where children are only motivated to behave well if they receive something in return.
Punishments can create fear, resentment, and defiance, rather than genuine understanding and cooperation.
Rewards and punishments can create an unhealthy power dynamic between parents/teachers and children, where children are controlled through external factors rather than developing their own sense of self-discipline and responsibility.
Instead of using rewards and punishments, parents and teachers can focus on building positive relationships with children, teaching empathy and problem-solving skills, and creating a supportive environment where children can learn and grow.
Foster a supportive and nurturing environment where your child feels safe to explore and learn. Parents can create a supportive and nurturing environment for their young boys by providing a safe and predictable home environment where they feel secure to explore and learn. This includes setting clear boundaries and rules, providing positive reinforcement, and allowing for independence and self-expression.
Encourage your child to make choices and decisions on their own, and praise their efforts rather than the outcome. This helps them develop self-esteem and self-confidence.
Focus on your child’s strengths and interests, and provide opportunities for them to pursue their passions. This helps them develop a sense of purpose and motivation.
Create realistic expectations and goals for your child, and help them develop a growth mindset to see mistakes as learning opportunities.
Model positive behaviors and attitudes yourself, and explain why certain behaviors are important. This helps children understand the reasoning behind positive behaviors and motivates them to adopt them.
Use descriptive praise to acknowledge positive behaviors and efforts, rather than generic praise or rewards.
Involve your child in problem-solving and decision-making, and encourage them to think critically about their actions and consequences. This helps children develop a sense of responsibility and accountability for their actions.
Help your child develop a sense of purpose and meaning, and encourage them to contribute to their community in meaningful ways. This helps children develop a sense of social responsibility and empathy.
Provide opportunities for your child to practice empathy and perspective-taking, and help them develop a sense of social responsibility. Volunteering provides opportunities for this kind of experience.
Encourage your child to reflect on their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and help them develop a strong sense of self-awareness and self-regulation. Reflecting and being curious about their behaviour influences how they behave
In a nutshell:
Traditional punishment and reward systems may seem like the easiest way to correct misbehavior in children but the results may be temporary, superficial and even detrimental to your child’s healthy development. Alternative parenting strategies offer a more positive and effective way to promote good behavior and help children learn how to make good choices. By understanding the reasons behind misbehavior, building strong and deep emotional connections, and applying practical positive parenting strategies, parents can help their children develop into well-behaved and responsible individuals.