Punishment & Praise: Natural Consequences or Unintended Harm?

For as long as I have been a mom, it seems punishment and praise have been the subject of much debate. 

There is a revolution happening in parenting today. 

Science has validated what many have known for years - that connection trumps control.

This focus on building the emotional intelligence of children contradicts the behaviorist theories which use punitive measures and evaluations to control children’s behavior.

One leading expert in the field of human behavior and education who advocates against the use of punishment and rewards is Alfie Kohn. His New York Times article, When a Parent’s ‘I Love You’ Means 'Do as I Say’, challenges the traditional thinking still defended by many parents and professionals.

Masked and marketed as "positive discipline" this type of parenting is often laden with "logical consequences" or flattery intermingled with judgment.

Self-proclaimed "experts," such as, James Dobson, Rabbi Shmuley, and Supernanny advocate a no-nonsense approach and advise praising the child who displays good behavior. Dr. Phil McGraw in his book, Family First, counsels that “one of the most powerful currencies for a child is the parent's acceptance and approval.” 

But does this give parents license to dangle their love like a carrot?

Should children be persuaded or expected to show obedience to earn parental love and acceptance or should love and acceptance be given unconditionally as a reminder of the cherished bond between parent and child?

Punishment seems like a logical remedy for misbehavior and may indeed stop the behavior in the moment, but at what risk to the relationship with your child?

On the opposite end of the control continuum is positive reinforcement which has been touted as a superior parenting tool. 

I remember my college classes in classroom management advising us to use stickers, stars, and praise as a more effective way to motivate students.

What's missing? 

Punishment and praise do not offer opportunities to teach appropriate behaviors, set limits, or connect because these techniques - 
  • miss the teachable moment and the value of modeling in favor of control and judgment

  • fail to set limits by inducing more stress and fear in a child (whether by forcing compliance or the perceived threat of not living up to expectations)

  • use conditional love which disconnects you from your children

The danger does not lie in the punishments, evaluations, or incentives themselves which may be relatively harmless depending on how often they are used, but in the message they send and how they affect your ability to enjoy a mutually satisfying relationship with your children.

So while punishment may secure us short-lived obedience, in the long run, it creates a rift in our relationship with our kids.  

A strict reliance on consequences without compassion also ignores the underlying cause of the behavior, and this denies children an opportunity to -
  • feel heard and validated
  • name feelings
  • express them without judgment
  • find new ways of interacting that are more acceptable

"In 2004, two Israeli researchers, Avi Assor and Guy Roth, joined Edward L. Deci, a leading American expert on the psychology of motivation, in asking more than 100 college students whether the love they had received from their parents had seemed to depend on whether they had succeeded in school, practiced hard for sports, been considerate toward others or suppressed emotions like anger and fear.”

This study found that students who were conditionally parented, though they were more likely to oblige their parents' wishes, tended to resent or dislike their parents more. 

It also supported previous findings that children who are overly praised or rewarded come to depend on that praise for their own internal motivation and when the praise (external motivation) stops coming - internal motivation to accomplish things without a reward suffers.

While it seems less destructive, excessive praise is still a measurement of your child's conduct (which they translate into their self-worth) and does not offer quality feedback nor promote skill development.

Punitive measures and overusing compliments can cause unnerving expectations and build emotional walls. Connection and open communication shut down and children tend to act out of fear rather than because they have developed a sound moral compass.

So why have these methods been promoted for so long?

Convenience? Comfort? 

We are motivated to change when the discomfort of our situation stresses us to a point where we must take action

If you've never explored your own reactions and emotions, you may not feel equipped to help your children manage theirs.

If you are unable to tolerate the unpleasant feelings of your children, they hear the message that they are only acceptable when they behave as requested and feelings do not matter

Getting comfortable with your emotions is one step in the right direction and will support your shift in thinking about how children deserve to be treated.

What do you think? Have you recently left behind punitive tools or looking to make the shift? Share your story in the comments below.

Thank you for reading and remember, conscious - not perfect!

Talk soon,

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