Alternatives to Rewards and Punishments

Rewards and Punishments are two sides of same coin. Both work on extrinsic control. Shall we control the child by the means of rewards and punishments or shall we sensitize the child to have better intrinsic controls.

Few years back I visited an office and started complaining to the girl at the front desk. It was regarding the bills that I had not received, which I had reminded her number of times. At that moment, her boss came, and I redirected my complaining to him. He immediately assured me that the bills will be sent by evening and informed me that it was he who had delayed them.

Satisfied, I stepped out of the office, saw my loose shoe laces and started tying them, when I over heard the girl crying inside. The boss asked, “Why are you crying?” The girl sobbed, “You knew I had forgotten to inform you about the bills, still you told him…”. The boss said, “Its only sometimes you forget things, consider this to be a reward for all the times you have remembered”.

Ladies and gentleman, this is one boss who understands rewards and punishment better than many of us. This is one guy who knows what works, what’s motivating and what’s inspiring for us human beings. Parents, the next time you bait your child with a reward or threaten with a punishment, remind yourself of this incident.

Remind yourself that although rewards and punishment seem to work in the short run – they are still controls. That while controls may make YOU FEEL powerful – parenting is perhaps more about empowerment and inspiration.

Eric Jensen defines rewards as something that caused the child to change his or her behavior in the hope of getting it (and you can extend it to punishment when a child did that to avoid getting it).So reward is anything that is predictable (I know in advance that I will get it IF…) and has a (market) value – a star, a chocolate, toy etc.

However, if it is predictable but has no market value. A smile, a hug, a compliment than it is an acknowledgement, recognition. If it has market value but is spontaneous or unrelated to the behavior or the task – a surprise chocolate, a small “I feel like giving this to you” gift – then it’s a GIFT or a celebration.

In both the cases above, the reward is still intrinsic to the child.

The brain does have its own built-in reward system. It’s not only unique to each individual, but it also habituates to new levels. It makes extrinsic rewards unequal from the start

Eric Jensen

Do you think that rewards are required because we are often short of time? I think that, over a period of time, I actually start saving time, when I operate not from control (there by avoiding power struggles) but from giving the child understanding, the real reason for doing something.

No wonder, our years of experience of working with many children from ages 2 to 15, we have never used any rewards whatsoever. It is because we believe that rewards and punishments alienate the child, put anxiety, and make them operate from low-risk behavior – thereby impairing creativity and higher order thinking. Rewards also rob children off opportunities to be responsible, independent and self motivated – which children naturally are!

Here is what we recommend -Operate from the paradigm that IF I need to give – it should not be both predictable and have market value.

1. Substitute material rewards with praise and encouragement (and keep that genuine). A smile, a hug, a public approval, a lovely label and a specific compliment works wonders.

2. If you want to, give material ‘gifts’ spontaneously without a reason. If possible do not explicitly connect it to the behavior. Say something harmless, like “I feel great, so here are chocolates for everybody”.

3.Eschew rewards by working on the real reason for the child to behave in a certain way. Asking them for the reasons, pointing out the consequences, giving them choices and even control may not sound attractive in short term, but are more fundamental, permanent and empowering in their effect. So rather than “if you brush now only then you will get toffee tomorrow,” ask, “Why do you think we should brush”? By focusing on the task we also ensure that rewards do not demean the task itself.

4. Finally, instead of rewards, see if you would like to use some of these: Challenge(I think you can make this room look like a masterpiece); Novelty(lets hum and brush); Choices(would you like to talk softly now or finish work and then talk); Empathy(I agree sometimes its tough to finish one’s glass of milk”); Feelings (How would you feel once you finish this); Positive feedback(Its impressive how you are putting in hard work into your swimming); Hope(At this rate you will soon finish this); Positive beliefs(You are a champ or a fast learner);

Role Modeling and ‘I’ language(I am going to do my work neatly); and finally Inspiration like the boss above, who I would like to work under!

So is disciplining about putting a carrot in front of the pony or about giving the leash itself to the horse? Think about it!

By Ratnesh & Aditi Mathur