The Blog

What You Miss Out On When You Rely on Punishment and Reward

Relying on punishment and reward is a lot like relying on fast food; in the moment it can be instantly gratifying, but nothing is really achieved.
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.

In light of the recent NFL situation regarding the use of physical "discipline" with a child I thought the timing was appropriate to share a blog I wrote in January sharing our families story of how we got out of the vicious cycle of using punishment and reward. Children learn what we teach and they grow up into parents who then teach the same things unless they learn a new way.

This quote from Dr. Thomas Gordon seems especially profound at the moment: "When parents once learn how to listen to children with empathy and understanding and resolve their conflicts peacefully, they stop using physical punishment. This in itself makes families a vital resource for the prevention of violence in our society."

One morning when my son Cole was 5-years-old, and in kindergarten, he broke down into tears inexplicably while eating his Cheerios. When I asked him what was wrong he said through sobs, "I will never get star of the week!" I asked him why he thought that and he said, "I can't do all of those things; sitting on the rug, being quiet in line, doing good work, all at the same time." He was absolutely overwhelmed with emotion which had come out of the blue before the day had even started.

In Cole's 5-year-old mind this was an unattainable goal, he watched week after week as other children received this reward and instead of it motivating him to try harder it completely demotivated him. For him the requirement felt overwhelming. I was very surprised by this because he is a very happy, go lucky kid and we didn't put any pressure on him to specifically achieve star of the week. Obviously it was something that was looming large for him during the school day.

That incidence taught us pretty early on that Cole is not motivated by the promise of reward but it took us a while longer to learn that he is also not motivated to change his behavior with the threat of punishment either. The latter was a more expensive lesson, time-outs usually escalated in 10 minute increments or we would threaten to take toys away to encourage Cole to change his behavior (usually something like sharing toys with his brother, or listening to us the first time instead of only when we raised our voices). As is always the case with punishment or reward if it doesn't elicit the desired change in behavior the punishment or reward escalates in order to entice the individual to change. Therein lies one of the first problems with punishment and reward, ultimately the other person is always in control of making that determination.

With Cole things would always escalate and he didn't mind if we took away his brand new Star Wars Lego Millenium Falcon, he didn't even mind when we ended up throwing it away. I can tell you that we certainly minded since it had cost a ton of money and was a recent Christmas present. I began to ask myself who was really being punished here? Cole didn't mind when another incident involved him having all of his Pokemon cards taken away. Our frustration grew and grew and meetings at school often involved the statement "we are having a hard time finding Cole's currency." We would acknowledge that we were having the same challenge at home.

It was at the time of the Millenium Falcom being thrown away that I read a book called Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children, by Dr. Thomas Gordon. My husband and I had reached the end of our frustration threshold and we felt that our relationship with Cole was taking a turn for the worst. He was only 6 years old.

I didn't want to be stuck in a constant power struggle with a child. I also didn't like the label "strong willed child" that we had begun using after reading a parenting book which will remain nameless. I just didn't believe that some children will always choose to learn the hard way. Accepting that as a fact was giving up and it made me feel sad for his future if that was going to be the case.

Finding the Parent Effectiveness Training book and its focus on using problem solving instead of punishment and reward completely turned our relationship with Cole around. I am happy to say that we have not used punishment or reward in our family for over four years now. What I learned from reading the book was that all behavior comes from an unmet need, even ours. By using punishment and reward we fail to get to the bottom of that unmet need which is why the behavior continues.

We starting using problem solving and Cole immediately responded positively to this change in approach. The primary difference was we weren't yelling at him, we were entering into a discussion with him. We were treating him with respect and asking him to do the same. We let him know that we are a family and that families help each other. We would problem solve specific behavior and get to the bottom of the unmet need that was leading to the behavior in the first place.

We were communicating in such a different way with him that each time we problem solved a situation we felt we got to know Cole better. Each instance is etched in my mind as a positive parenting memory of true connection with my child. I can tell you for certain that I never felt more connected with my child after using punishment or reward, but with problem solving I really did.

Relying on punishment and reward is a lot like relying on fast food; in the moment it can be instantly gratifying, but nothing is really achieved. A short time later you find yourself back to where you started, hungry, dissatisfied and usually feeling a little bit guilty for not having made a better choice.

Problem solving can take a bit more time in the moment but ultimately it saves time because the result is longer lasting. The added benefit is that you communicate more deeply and meaningfully with your child and ultimately as a family. You are also teaching your child a positive form of problem solving that they will use in their own lives.