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Rewards vs. Punishments: A Paradigm Shift

Parents have long used a system of punishments and rewards as a core method to help manage their children's behavior. Good actions get rewarded, while bad ones bring punishment. That may just seem logical to many – and many parents wonder which approach is better. Should they use punishments or rewards? Or both?

In truth, the answer is neither.

Smart Love has seen time and again that there is another way - one that brings better results, strengthens relationships, and builds trust, confidence, and self-esteem, which we call ‘Loving Regulation’. As Dr. Martha Heineman Pieper, co-developer of the Smart Love™ approach, describes it, Loving Regulation “separates the punitive component from the regulatory component of managing children’s behavior…. In order to preserve your child’s self-esteem, [parents] should remain kind and loving while showing their child what is acceptable. In this way your child will know that you feel positively about him or her even when you need to stop unsafe behavior.”

When parents learn how to reshape their methods based on more accurate knowledge of how their responses impact their children, they are not only parenting for the long-term health and well-being of their child, but also building and maintaining a life-long positive relationship with their child.

Dr. Pieper adds that, “[Children who are] regularly disciplined learn lessons very different from what their parents think they are teaching. Children will grow up to be overly critical of themselves and others. Parents do not intend this, they only intend to change their child’s immediate behavior. But both rewards and punishments are counterproductive because they are coercive.” At Smart Love, we frequently hear parents express frustration because rewards and/or punishments are ‘not working’ and they see their child’s negative behaviors manifest in everything from slamming doors to shouting matches and more, primarily because the true issue was never addressed. 

Loving Regulation is far superior because it preserves the warmth and closeness all children need in order to develop positive self-worth, self-confidence, and self-esteem, as it guides children to safe and appropriate behavior.

Two recent New York Times articles reinforce the accuracy and importance of this approach. In the first, “Science Confirms It: People Are Not Pets” (October 27, 2018), Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards, provides mounting evidence of how rewards actually damage intrinsic motivation. “A study, conducted by Carly Robinson at Harvard and her colleagues, and released as a working paper this past summer, followed more than 15,000 students in 14 California school districts, watching to see whether those who received a reward for exemplary attendance in the fall would come to school more often in February as compared to those who hadn’t been rewarded. Again, the rewards either had no effect or led to poorer attendance.” (To read this article in its entirety, click here.)

Speaking to the impact of both rewards and punishments on children, in her article, “Which Is Better, Rewards or Punishments? Neither” (August 21, 2018), psychotherapist and child development expert Dr. Heather Turgeon explains that when rewards are applied, a child’s motivation decreases and/or even disappears. And when punishments are implemented, learning shuts down and resentment, rebellion, and other negative feelings can ensue. She goes on to offer some responses for parents that can increase a child’s motivation and draw upon their natural inclinations to put forth effort and do their best. (To read her article in its entirety, click here.) 

Dr. Turgeon goes on to note something that stood out for us as her words capture what is a fundamental tenet of Smart Love, “…the whole concept of punishments and rewards is based on negative assumptions about children — that they need to be controlled and shaped by us, and that they don’t have good intentions. But we can flip this around to see kids as capable, wired for empathy, cooperation, team spirit and hard work. That perspective changes how we talk to children in powerful ways.” (To read her article in its entirety, click here.)

This premise is at the foundation of the Smart Love approach: Children are not bad. Children’s behavior is not bad. Children are not born selfish or aggressive towards others, nor are they completely unable to regulate their behavior.

And from our decades of experience working with adults and children, we have learned that – as Dr. Pieper describes in another of her works, “if children are, in effect, disciplined for being children, the lesson they learn from their parents’ disapproval and punishments is to hold themselves to overly strict standards as adults and then to berate themselves when they fail to measure up. As adults, they are likely to criticize themselves severely for behaviors that others might take in stride.” Demanding too much of children can teach us to expect too much of ourselves, others, and make our lives difficult and unsatisfying as adults.

For many, this perspective is a paradigm shift, as for decades – and even centuries – society has understood children to have an inborn temperament that causes some of them to be unhappy and develop problematic behavior. Thankfully, through research and informed practice, this damaging understanding is changing. And when parents operate from this healthier new perspective, it can significantly alter the way they interact with their children for the better, both short and long-term.




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