Reward or Punishment? How to Get the Behavior You Want

By Courtney Drake-McDonough

How to Be a Good ParentIt’s one of those nightmares of parenting. Your child is having a full-on-sit-down-and-won’t-budge fit in the store. People stare, some in judgment, others in commiserating recognition. Do you threaten punishment or entice with a reward to get your child to behave? Which way will prevent you from being either the Wicked Witch of the West or the world’s biggest pushover in your child’s eyes?

Being a parent means confronting behavioral challenges from your children every day. And there’s no shortage of information and advice on how to effectively guide your kids to better behavior.

Among the latest additions are two books: Your Kids Are Your Own Fault: A Guide for Raising Responsible, Productive Adults, by Larry Winget (Gotham, 2009), and How to be a Good Parent by Dealing Effectively With the Most Common Behavioral Problems of Children, by Don Fontenelle, Ph.D. (Pelican Publishing, 2009).

Your Kids are Your Own FaultAt first glance, you’d think that no two authors could be more different in their approaches. Winget is a flamboyant cowboy-boot wearing speaker, author and television personality whose blunt, “stop whining and just do it” personal- coaching style has many fans. Fontenelle is a noted psychologist who has worked with kids, parents and teachers for some 35 years. He’s the author of 22 books on child and adolescent behavior and an advocate of positive parenting techniques.

We asked each of them whether rewards or punishment yield better child behavior.

Should parents try harder to catch their children doing the right thing – rewarding good behavior, rather than punishing bad?

Winget: Rewarding good behavior so that you get more good behavior is the way to create the kind of kid you want. Ideally, you reward the good behavior so you never have to deal with the bad. However, we don’t live in an ideal world with ideal kids reacting to ideal situations. Bottom line, every kid misbehaves and that behavior must be dealt with immediately. Even if it isn’t convenient, bad behavior can’t be ignored and the correction can’t be put off. Stop, get the child’s attention, communicate what you expected and implement the appropriate consequences.

Fontenelle: Although I stress a positive approach and reward, I’m not against punishment. I just feel that if we discipline a child 10 times a day, the majority of the consequences should be positive. For instance, if you’re going to the store where your child frequently acts up tell him or her, “Every time I have to correct your behavior, I’m giving you a warning. If you get three or fewer warnings, we’ll go out for lunch. If you get more than three, we won’t.”

Can rewarding good behavior backfire?

Fontenelle: It can, if the parent is not consistent or in control, the child will learn to manipulate the situation to his or her advantage. This will also develop if you allow the child to negotiate with you, which places the child in control.

Can punishment backfire?

Winget: What the parent may see as punishment may actually be seen as reward by the child (in terms of the child getting attention, for example). What is rewarded gets repeated. If bad behavior doesn’t change, then your form of punishment isn’t working. If rewarding good behavior doesn’t get that behavior repeated then your reward isn’t working either. The key is to know your kid well enough to know what works in terms of both punishment and reward.

Do different approaches work on different kids?

Fontenelle: Yes. There are what I call “control kids.” They like contests, being in control and pressing their parents’ buttons. The more this child knows you want him to take a bath, for instance, the less likely he is to do it. Remember, punishment is based on fear of a negative consequence. Some children (like the “control kid”) don’t have that fear, and punishment won’t work with them. For this child, you have to use mostly rewards as incentives.

Winget: It also depends on the age of the child. Little kids can’t ever be allowed to think there is an option (with certain behaviors). Enforce actions as the only way to act from the time they’re babies. With older kids, explain the consequences for not doing things. If they are willing to smell like little pigs by not bathing, peer pressure should be punishment enough to change their minds.

What works best for rewards and punishment?

Fontenelle: Start with material or activity rewards to motivate the child toward good behavior. Once they change their behavior, add social rewards (like praise). Eventually, the material and social rewards can be phased out. Intrinsic rewards will take over.

Winget: Both are most effective when you know what’s most important to your child. If they love to talk on the phone, taking that away is effective punishment. If extra time outside is important to them, then that’s a good reward. Punishment has to hurt (not physically) to be effective. For rewards, think about the end results. If you don’t want food to be an issue for your kid, don’t reward with sweets. Remember, there is no one way to raise your kid. It takes a combination of rewarding good behavior in order to have it repeated and swift, appropriate punishment when faced with bad behavior. All of it is based on clearly communicating in advance what you expect and what the consequences are going to be.