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November 23rd, 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.