Rewards or Punishment? Exploring Disciplinary Actions That Work.

Having a challenging child is draining to say the least. You hide the permanent markers and instruct your little one to refrain from writing on the walls, and no more than 5 minutes later they’ve drawn their interpretation of the Mona Lisa. Only in this rendition, she’s smiling of course. You catch your pride and joy hitting their siblings and try to intrench it in their brains that hitting is never acceptable, only to have your Netflix and relaxation time abruptly disrupted by “MOOOMMM! Braeden hit me!” Our ultimate goal as parents to help our children grow and form an adult who will behave, be respectful, and be a contributing member of society. In order to do so our goal should be to teach our children, not to discipline them. So, is it more beneficial to teach our children through punishment or reward? Or is there an alternative means to teach our children that has been proven to be more effective?

First and foremost, children don’t respond well to punishment in the form of hitting or spanking. Physically punishing your child may stop their bad behaviour in the short term, however it is proven that physical contact has long term implications. When a parent tries to get their child to listen by hitting them, that parent is indirectly telling their child that hitting people who are younger and smaller than you is an effective means to get your way. It should be no stranger to anyone, especially with all the research done in the field, that physical punishment causes children to be more defiant towards their parents and authoritative figures, creating a negative relationship with their parents in the long run. Studies also show that children who are victims of abuse are more likely to become violent to their partner or spouse as they grow older. Not only does physical punishment negatively affect their relationship with others, it also affects their relationship with self. They are more likely to suffer mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse and less likely to empathize with others. So, without question, behavioural corrective through physical contact is in no way an effective means of punishing your child.

After reading several articles on the issue, I have discovered three other forms of discipline. The first being rewards, the second being punishment, and the third being a new age shift towards gentle parenting.

When disciplining a child, the rewards debate states that you should ignore bad behaviour and reward good behaviour. As most of us know, that is often easier said than done. Bad behaviour can be so destructive and so bothersome that it’s difficult to ignore. When we ignore bad behaviour, we never ignore the child. If the child is having a tantrum, we ensure they are in a safe area, but we ignore the behaviour. When they calm down, we reason with them and have a conversation about their feelings and why they had a tantrum. Ignoring bad behaviour may seem counteractive because ignoring said behaviour can translate to the child as tolerating it and in the long run, failing to do one’s duty as a parent.

Punishment is quite self-explanatory and something that people my age are no stranger to (how old am I? I’ll never tell.) Punishment is when a parent enacts a penalty as a form of retribution for bad behaviour. However, punishment actually limits a parent’s ability to manage a child’s behaviour compared to rewards. Our little ones will sooner adjust their behaviour or reaction to a situation to obtain a reward than to avoid a punishment. When you think about it, that is also applicable to us adults. For example, we often change our behaviour to get free shipping or some Coles minis to add to our collection. We also respond positively when a stranger shoot us a smile or a thank you and we are likely to repeat this behaviour when we are rewarded this way. Essentially, rewards are proactive and will help your child to grow in the long run where punishment is more reactive and acts as an impulsive response to bad behaviours. Punishment doesn’t act as some of the most teachable moments.

Children need the love of good parents above all. There are proactive techniques to discipline that generally promote good behaviour and provide that love, whereas reactive techniques are more impulsive and used when a child is misbehaving in the moment. The more proactive you are, the easier you can manage your child’s behaviour and the less reactive you’ll need to be. According to Robert Brooks, PhD, it is important to “ensure that children have a consistent, safe and secure environment in which they can learn and understand the importance of reasonable rules, limits and consequences. The second, equally important, is to nurture self-discipline, or self-control, which will ultimately help them become more resilient and able to deal with frustration and mistakes.”

Lately, parents are experimenting with a new form of discipline known as gentle parenting. In this style of punishment, parents don’t focus on rewards or punishment. They encourage good behaviour because it’s intrinsically the right thing to do. Offering rewards or punishment essentially teaches children that they should act a certain way for their own benefit rather than to do the right thing. To have a child rely on extrinsic motivation rather than intrinsic overrides a child’s natural inclination to do the right thing. In order to allow children to resort to their natural inclination in response to certain events, it is argued that we should give children free rein. You may think im crazy considering children play with knives and fire without any concern for the repercussions, so it’s important I add that children need limits. Telling a child what’s safe and what’s dangerous is different than punishing them. To assist with this gentle form of parenting, you can follow these steps:

  1. Stop the behaviour in its tracks. If your little one is about to play near the water, hold their hand and lead them away from the water.
  2. Behavioural psychologists suggest that you verbalize how unsafe the action is such as “ I will not let you go near the water without a life jacket, I won’t let you go near the water unless I am with you.”
  3. If they cry, this is normal and allow them to cry. I cry when I get a parking fine, but it doesn’t stop the fine from being processed.
  4. When they do cry, reassure that you understand why they’re upset, but you had to compromise their agency in order to protect them from greater harm.

In conclusion discipline is child specific, however it is important to be proactive and use certain practices to be preventative. Ensure that your child reflects on their bad behaviour and have an open-ended conversation rather than sending your little one straight to the naughty corner. The most important fact of the discipline debate is that shaping children’s behaviour extends well beyond what you do when they’re misbehaving. It’s important to practice preventative discipline to stop future misbehaviour. Discipline is something you should constantly practice with your child in the way that you talk to them and the examples you set in everyday life. It’s important to not only encourage good behaviour, but to promote agency, strength of character, resilience, independence and a strong moral compass. So, what are some things you can take away from this blog?

  1. Show and tell. Teach your little one right from wrong using calm words and actions. Remember, children have absorbent minds so its important to model the behaviours you want to see in your children.
  2. Set rules and limits. Be sure to explain these rules in age appropriate terms and language to avoid any miscommunications.
  3. Ensure there are consequence to their actions. Calmly and firmly explain the consequences of their actions. Be sure to follow through and stick to the punishment. It’s important not to give in after you implement the punishment and to see it through until they have learned their lesson and your word is kept.
  4. Ensure that their voice is heard and give them your attention. Listening is key and let your child give their two cents before disciplining. Be sure to also talk to your child rather than just giving them their punishment. Reinforce good behaviours and discourage bad ones.
  5. Catch them when they’re being good. It’s just as important to let your child know they are doing something good as it is when they’re doing something bad. Point out good behaviour and be sure to praise success and attempts at good behaviour.
  6. Know when to react. As long as your child isn’t doing anything dangerous, ignoring bad behaviour can be an effective way of putting it to rest. By ignoring bad behaviour, children can also learn from trial and error. If your child decides to throw their toy in a tantrum and it breaks, they will learn to be more careful with their toys and effective ways to express their emotions (hopefully through respectful speech.)
  7. Be prepared for the worse. Plan ahead for situations where your child is prone to misbehaving. Instruct your child how you expect them to behave at a certain event or activity.
  8. Redirect bad behaviour. Often, children misbehave out of boredom or because they aren’t sure that what their doing is misbehaving. Find something else for your child to do.
  9. Time out. One minute per year of age is a great rule of thumb when deciding how long to put baby in the corner. As children get older, a useful tactic is to let the child lead their own time out. “Go to time out and come back when you’re ready.” This will help with self-management skills and allow your child to reflect on their bad behaviour and the consequences.

Your goal should be to teach your child, not to punish them.

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