The Blog

Teaching Children to Be Responsible

If we remove reward and punishment, what do we put in its place? The key to effective discipline is to establish mutual respect and to expect cooperation
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

For years, parenting experts have advised us to use reward and punishment to discipline our children. That seemed to make sense. It was logical. If we want our children to exhibit a certain behavior, reward them. Give them a treat. Give them a clear incentive to follow direction, get good grades, respect their elders, etc. Naturally, it follows that to stop unwanted behavior we should "punish" our children. We yell, hit threaten and over-react to send a very clear message to our young ones that this is a behavior we ought not see again. Does this method of discipline work? Maybe for a moment, but at a high cost.

Reward doesn't work because, simply put, it teaches our children that they are entitled to payment for their cooperation. Therefore, they behave to get something. Punishment doesn't work because it is an attack on self-esteem. Your relationship with your child becomes a relationship based in fear. It invites rebellion. Reward and punishment teach children to expect an adult to be responsible for their behavior. Our goal as parents is to guide our children toward self-discipline. We need to get out of the good guy/ bad guy role and be free to be our children's confidants, supporters and role models.

So, if we remove reward and punishment, what do we put in its place? The key to effective discipline is to establish mutual respect and to expect cooperation. Children deserve our respect. As we respect them, they will respect us in return. Involving children through choice and consequence is essential to effective discipline. Teaching children that we are not in charge of their lives, they are, can't happen early enough. We struggle in this society with the "don't blame me" mentality because from our earliest experiences, we have been taught to rely on others to tell us how to behave, reward us when we're good and punish us when we're not. Imagine a world where we took personal responsibility for our lives, our choices and our destiny.

Giving children choices helps them to build self-esteem, develop independence and encourage cooperation. Giving children simple choices respects their desire for control AND your desire to keep order in your home. Set limits, but provide choice within the limit.

Examples for young children:

  • This is the last book we'll be reading tonight. Would you like mommy to read it or daddy?
  • It's time to get in your pajamas. Do you want the red ones or blue ones?
  • It's time to put your shoes on. Would you like to wear your boots or your sneakers today?
  • It's time for bed. Would you like to brush your teeth first or use the potty first?
Examples for adolescents
  • You must clean your room this weekend. What time this weekend would work best for you?
  • I need to talk with you tonight while you are at your friend's house. Would you like me to call there or would you prefer to call me? What time would be best for you?
  • I need you to help with chores this weekend. Here is a list of what needs to get done. How would you like to split it up? What time on Sunday would work with your schedule?

Giving children freedom to choose eliminates power struggles. It sends a clear message that you respect them, their needs and their desire to have a say in their own lives. Children are no different than adults in that they don't like to feel controlled. If you can avoid power struggles, you are much more likely to get what you want from your kids. Keeping emotion (especially anger) out of consequences, avoids making consequences "punishment."

We all make choices in our lives and experience consequences as a result of those choices. Children are no different. If they won't clean up the toys, they can't play with them the next day. Keep it simple, no fits (on your end), just follow through. Your child can't seem to find the time to clean her room? Don't find the time to take her to the mall. Parents have great power. You don't need to yell, scream, hit or threaten to get your point across. The damage done to the relationship just isn't worth it. Discipline through choice and consequence, avoid power struggles and allow choice within limits. These actions will teach your children to behave, build their belief in themselves and give them a sense of personal responsibility that will last a lifetime.

Robin Kevles-Necowitz, is a licensed professional counselor and parenting coach in Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania. She has been in private practice working with adults, couples, and families for nearly twenty-five years and is the author of Go Take a Bath!: A Powerful Self-Care Approach to Extraordinary Parenting which has been garnering rave reviews on Amazon. She is the More 101 FM parenting expert and has written parenting articles for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Bucks County Courier Times, and the Huffington Post. She lives in Yardley, PA with her husband, two daughters, and dog, "Nugget Necowitz." Find her on FB by friending Parent Assist or follow her on Twitter @RobinNecowitz

Popular in the Community