How to Raise Children Without Rewards and Punishments?

Educating children without rewards or punishments is possible. It's best to establish responsibilities and encourage intrinsic motivation.
How to Raise Children Without Rewards and Punishments?
Elena Sanz Martín

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz Martín.

Last update: 16 December, 2022

Educating children has never been an easy task, but in recent years, it seems to have become much more complicated. What’s really happening is that today’s parents are generally more aware and committed to their task. They seek to be informed and to act correctly; but they often find that almost every traditional educational method seems to be vetoed by today’s experts. For example, why should we educate without rewards and punishments?

At first, this may sound contradictory. After all, only a few years ago, such behaviorist techniques (punishment and reinforcement) seemed to be the ultimate solution to child-rearing. And, although it’s true that they can be useful and effective in correcting children’s behavior, the consequences they cause make them unsuitable. Therefore, we want to show you some alternatives that are more respectful and that will work very well both for your children and for you.

Why raise children without rewards and punishments?

Before telling you what these alternatives are, it’s important that you understand why you should eliminate rewards and punishments from education. Remember that the main objective is to prepare your children for life, offering them the guidance and tools to be autonomous. Rewards and punishments don’t favor this autonomy; on the contrary, they generate obedience, submission, and the need for approval.

That’s to say, with these types of practices, we get children to behave in a certain way but under duress, with the sole purpose of obtaining something pleasant or avoiding something unpleasant. In short, they don’t learn, don’t reason, and don’t internalize motives. In addition, conflicts and resentment can arise between parents and children.

Keys to raising children without rewards or punishments

Perhaps you think that educating without rewards or punishments is an impossible mission. How, then, are you going to manage to direct or correct the behavior of your children? What you have to keep in mind is that they are developing human beings and it is not so important to get them to obey you at a given moment as it is to lay a solid foundation in their personality. With this in mind, it will be easier for you to understand and apply the following principles.

Values education

Instilling values is one of the best ways to predict or direct children’s behavior. An empathetic child doesn’t need threats to treat others well; a generous child doesn’t need to be forced to share. When these basic principles are internalized, they guide behavior constantly and from within, without the need for adult intervention or coercion. So, nurture your child’s soul and let it guide them.

Explain and reason

How many times have you resorted to phrases like “because I said so”? These are really quick and easy ways to make children obey, but they’re tremendously uneducational. On the contrary, reasoning and explaining the reasons why we ask for certain things and deny them others requires more time and effort; however, it’s much more effective in the long run.

Get used to dialoguing with your child, answering their questions, and offering arguments. This way, they’re much more likely to get involved in doing what you tell them to do and feel more satisfied when they do it. And if you take this extra time, they’ll feel respected and taken into consideration and will be much more open and collaborative.

Intrinsic motivation

Most parents are aware that punishments aren’t the best way to educate, but they’re not clear why positive reinforcement isn’t a good choice either. What’s wrong with offering your child a gift if they get good grades? Why is it harmful to buy them some jelly beans if they do their homework? Precisely because intrinsic motivation is cancelled out.

This concept refers to the personal satisfaction that drives us to behave in a certain way. Therefore, a child may finish a project simply because they feel proud of themself and their work, they may collaborate at home because they feel autonomous and valuable, and they may decide to read every day because they find it pleasant and enjoyable. These motives are much more powerful than rewards, be they material or immaterial, that come from the outside.

Responsibility and consequences

Finally, one of the best ways to educate without rewards and punishments is to do it based on natural consequences. That is, appealing to what happens naturally when we act in a certain way. For example, if you want your child to pick up their toys, don’t threaten to take away their screen time if they don’t do it; rather, explain to them that if they leave them lying around, they’ll have a hard time finding them later, they’ll have trouble walking around their room, and it’s possible that someone might step on them and break them.

In this case, the consequences aren’t provided by adults (as in the case of punishment) but by the natural course of events. In addition, the child’s allowed to decide after explaining to them what may happen. They can choose not to pick up their toys, and we won’t repeat our request, insist, or threaten them. Exploration and experimentation of the consequences will lead them to make the best decision.

Educating without rewards or punishments is beneficial for the whole family

Opting for this type of educational practice isn’t only beneficial for children, who grow up to be more determined, responsible, and emotionally healthy. It’s also positive for parents, as they get rid of the need to act as police or sergeants, threatening, controlling, and bribing their children.

Under this parenting prism, a much more relaxed and positive family environment is achieved. A climate of love and respect shared by all family members is generated. Therefore, don’t hesitate and try to put it into practice. If you persevere, you’ll see great results.

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