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November, 2009:

Rewarding and Punishing Children’s Behaviour

Rewarding and Punishing children’s behaviour is not particularly “pc”. I think there are primarily two reasons for that. Firstly, there has been a lot of focus on “children’s rights” in recent years. I think this has mistakenly been interpreted by some as meaning that adults don’t have the right to influence children by manipulating the consequences of their behaviour. I disagree. Children’s rights should mean that children are entitled to the same human rights as adults, in an age-appropriate manner, and that all children are entitled to basic human rights involving safety, protection, education, health etc. They actually have the right to be cared for by adults who love them enough that they do influence them. Secondly, both rewards and punishments are often misunderstood. Parents often apologise to me for “bribing” their child with rewards. A “bribe” is the “offer of an inducement to commit an immoral act”. The reason that bribery is wrong is that it is an attempt to influence someone to behave badly. Rewards from parents are provided to a child after the child has behaved well. They are totally different. Punishment is often assumed to mean “physical” acts such as smacking, whereas punishment can take many forms. It is also thought by many parents that they should only need to reward behaviour, that it is better to reward than to punish, and that punishment is wrong because it doesn’t teach the child what to do, only what not to do.

 My thoughts are that rewarding and punishing children’s behaviour is unavoidable, and they work best when they are used in tandem – rewarding acceptable or appropriate behaviour and punishing unacceptable or inappropriate behaviour. Let me explain both of these ideas.

The technical term for rewarding behaviour is “reinforcement”. Punishment is the technical term. They have specific meanings that come from behaviour modification. Reinforcement is the strengthening of behaviour (increasing its frequency, making it more likely to occur in the future) and punishment is the weakening of behaviour (decreasing its frequency, making it less likely to occur in the future). Both reinforcements and punishments are provided after the behaviour has occurred. A really important point is that we only know that something is a reward or a punisher when we know the effect it has on the behaviour. So a sweet is not a reward unless it increases the frequency of the behaviour it follows. A smack on the hand is only a punisher if it decreases the frequency. A common mistake that parents make is to assume that an act or an object inherently has reinforcing or punishing qualities and to not determine that it does for their child.

So why is rewarding or punishing behaviour inevitable? Well, all behaviour has consequences. It is always followed by something, even if that something is “nothing”! That’s right – ignoring behaviour can either reward it or punish it. Similarly, giving a child attention following behaviour can either reward or punish it. It’s important to determine which is happening. Anything a parent does – a frown, a smile, a hug, a reprimand, a “look” – is likely to be a reinforcer or a punisher.

 Whenever a child behaves, he or she has the option of behaving “appropriately” or “inappropriately”. Parents in turn need to have at their disposal a range of consequences, both reinforcers and punishers. The most effective management occurs when an appropriate behaviour is rewarded and an inappropriate behaviour is punished. That gives parents double the chance to influence their child. Some examples might help:

  •  Children who watch television without fighting (appropriate behaviour) can keep watching television (reward) but if they fight (inappropriate behaviour) the television is turned off (punishment),
  •  Children who eat their dinner or use good manners can have dessert, but if they don’t eat their dinner or don’t use their manners they can’t,
  •  Children who do their chores receive a star/token/sticker, and if they don’t do their chores they don’t receive one and they miss out on television until they complete them,
  •  Children who get ready for bed co-operatively can read or have a story for an extra ten minutes. Children who are unco-operative get no story or go to bed ten minutes early that night or the next night.

Thinking accurately and believably

An often heard piece of advice given to people who are feeling depressed or anxious or struggling in some way is to “think positively”. It is not necessarily bad advice and if it’s easy to do then it will probably help. However it is not easy to do. The main reason for this is that our thinking really defines who we are – our opinions, attitudes, beliefs, and our conscious stream of thought are what make us unique. To change them is no easy matter. A more appropriate goal is to “think accurately”. The main problem with “negative thinking” is that it is inaccurate. One of the main tasks in therapy with clients who are depressed or anxious is to help them identify the inaccuracy in their thinking (for example the over-prediction of threat or danger, or the negative evaluation of their own worth). The next step is to change their thinking so that it is accurate, not necessarily positive. In fact it is more important that their thinking is accurate and realistic because their thinking also needs to be believable. There’s no point in helping someone to think in a different manner if they can’t believe it, because they won’t be able to maintain it.

So the goal should be accurate and believable thinking, and if possible, positive thinking, but it shouldn’t be positive at the expense of being accurate and believable.

A Model of Emotional Functioning

Cognitive Behavioural Theory (CBT) has become one of the predominant schools of thought in Clinical Psychology in recent years. One of the major reasons for this is that it is easy to understand – it makes sense quickly. This contrasts it with some schools of thought that are complex, difficult to understand, and sometimes greeted with disbelief by non-believers. The simplicity of CBT leads nicely into a “psycho-educational” approach to therapy. This is an approach that focuses on teaching clients to understand their psychological functioning and to learn skills to manage that functioning more effectively.

 A simple CBT model that I use with clients is the following:

 Situation          ?        Thoughts       +          Physical Feelings       ?        Behaviour

This is a model that can be used to explain how people experience any emotional state. Most commonly, clients will present for counselling with concerns such as depression, anxiety, anger, or grief, but positive emotions such as joy, pride, sexual arousal, or negative ones such as frustration, disappointment, guilt, can also be understood using this model.

The essential elements of the model are:

  •  Emotions can be thought of as a process, not a state. They are made up of different components and they fluctuate in terms of their presence, and the intensity with which they are experienced
  • The process is triggered by “situations” or “stimuli”. These can be external to the person (events that occur, things they see or hear) or internal (memories, thoughts)
  • These “stimuli” trigger thoughts that appraise, evaluate, or attempt in some way to “make sense of” the information coming in through our senses
  • Associated with these thoughts are physical feelings or sensations. These sensations are neither negative nor positive, they are neutral. They are sensations that are associated with physical changes such as muscle tension, breathing rate, blood flow, secretion of bodily fluids. They are perceived by people as positive or negative on the basis of the other information available to the person. For example, anticipatory excitement (positive) and anticipatory anxiety (negative) are associated with the same physical changes in the body but are experienced differently because of the different stimuli and thoughts involved in each
  • When people describe the unpleasantness associated with an emotion, they usually describe a combination of thoughts and physical sensations. The word “anger” for example, can be considered as a label for a particular combination of thoughts and physical feelings.
  • The behaviours that are typically part of an emotional experience can be regarded as the means of coping with, or reacting to, the thoughts and physical feelings. In this way, for example, the avoidance that is typically associated with anxiety is the means of coping with (reducing) the distress associated with the unpleasant physical sensations.

One of the benefits of this model is that it provides four possible avenues to make change – triggering stimuli, thoughts, physical sensations, behaviour. Some of the other entries in my Blog will explore these areas.