7 Tips to Avoid Relying on Punishment and Reward

April 23, 2018

Children need precise instructions when they’re very young, and specialists advise against relying too heavily on punishment and reward.

Children respond better to other methods that develop their cognitive abilities.

It’s all too common to tell children off when they do something wrong. We often resort to punishment to discourage misbehavior.

Meanwhile, when our little ones are well-behaved or do the right thing, it’s natural to want to reward them. And this is the way we bring up our children.

It works, to some extent, but there may be better ways. Below, we’ll explore some alternatives to the typical carrot-and-stick approach.

7 Tips to Avoid Relying on Punishment and Reward

How do we avoid over-reliance on punishment and reward?

No parent sets out to raise their children through punishment and reward. But many parents end up doing it.

This is normal, common and understandable. After all, children don’t come with an instruction manual.

Depending on the type of punishment, there may not be long-term negative effects for the child. And how could a reward possibly do any harm?

In fact, some psychological theories explain that over-reliance on the carrot-and-stick approach can end up reinforcing the very behavior we are trying to avoid.

Positive reinforcement isn’t wholly discouraged, as it can be very effective.

What can go wrong, though, is the way that we reward our children. If a treat is something that is always available, children may come to expect it.

Punishment, too, depends on how we apply it. Discipline can be counterproductive if it’s too harsh or inconsistent.

With this in mind, experts recommend that we move beyond punishment and reward, helping children develop their cognitive process.

To encourage this development, there are certain things we can do:

  • Avoid surprises, drastic changes or improvisation. Your child’s actions should always lead to the same result.
  • Put your children to the test. Try to get them to associate different ideas by applying a concept they’ve learned to a new situation.
  • Teach them to reflect on their actions. Give them space to do this without pressure.
  • Take advantage of every moment to ask them questions. Listen to their answers, and give positive feedback.
  • If you’re going to bring in small changes, try to do it gradually.
  • Adapt your way of thinking to theirs. Don’t try to get your child to match your more advanced reasoning.
  • Encourage experimentation, trial and error, and exploration.

Developing good behavior according to their abilities

If we’re able to understand that each child is different and every kid learns at their own pace, we can avoid a lot of headaches.

Sometimes, what we might consider to be bad behavior is just part of kids developing their own personality. In these cases, it’s not always a good idea to punish them.

7 Tips to Avoid Relying on Punishment and Reward

Correcting poor behavior and giving rewards for good behavior can both be counterproductive.

Experts consider children’s behavior to be relatively stable. That is, they behave according to their age and capabilities.

Intervention, whether positive or negative, can be unnecessary.

In this sense, the best thing we can do is to get children’s brain cells working. Many psychologists believe that children are capable of adapting to their surroundings.

Children can pick up good habits from their environment and those around them. This means that, if parents create an environment that suits their criteria, children will be able to adapt to it.

Balanced behavior in children will always depend on at least two factors.

The first of these is the evolution of their cognitive processes. The second is how they adapt to their surroundings.

With this in mind, parents’ interventions should focus primarily on cognitive development, and later on creating a suitable environment to encourage positive behavior.

  • Aguirre, E., Montoya, L., & Reyes, J. (2006). Crianza y castigo físico. Diálogos, 4, 31-48. https://www.aacademica.org/eduardo.aguirre/8.pdf
  • Baumrind, D. (1996). The Discipline Controversy Revisited. Family Relations, 45(4), 405- 414.
  • McMahon, R. (1991). Entrenamiento de padres. En V.E. Caballo (ed.), Manual de técnicas de terapia y modificación de conducta, Madrid: Siglo XXI.
  • Tabares, X. (1998). El castigo a través de los ojos de los niños. Bogotá. D.C.: CES-Universidad Nacional de Colombia.