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Alternatives to Punishment and Reward Parenting!!

Updated: May 11, 2022

By Nicholas Burnand

What do you do when your child is behaving in ways that you do not agree with? How do you react? What can you do to get the behaviour that you want to see?

This is a complex issue. In many cultures, the answer is either punishment or reward. Punishment is used to prevent unwanted behaviour and rewards are used to encourage desired behaviour. These methods can appear to work as short term solutions as long as the person that you are wanting to behave is submissive to your demands. Using such tactics to get what you want, does however ultimately mean that you both lose and that you will inevitably pay for it later. I will elaborate on the costs of punishment and reward in the coming paragraphs.

Punishment and reward come in many forms. Punishments can be physical and verbal expressions like hitting, shouting and detention or they can also be more subtle like taking away your attention by ignoring the other person.

Similarly, rewards can come in the form of something given like money, a toy or food and can also be more subtle like a smile or praise (you’re such a good boy/girl when you do that).

Whenever behaviour is driven by external motivation, it is not sustainable. Take away the reward, or remove the risk of punishment and the unwanted behaviour will return. If the person is not behaving from the intrinsic desire to do so, then it is most likely that they will return to a behaviour that is in service of their needs as soon as the threat or coercion is removed.

When using punishment to get what you want, you also run the risk of rebellion. We see this all too often in children of all ages when they refuse to do what has been demanded of them. Nobody wants to be told what to do. We all have a need for autonomy (to choose how we would like to spend our time), children included.

The question I like to ask myself is “why do I want the people around me to do what they do?”. I love it when my nine-year-old daughter behaves in ways that contribute to my wellbeing, and my sense of interdependence, and yet I don’t want her motivation to be her fear of punishment or her desire for rewards. I want her to behave from intrinsic motivation because she can see how it is fulfilling for her to do what she is doing rather than her wanting to contribute by being forced or coerced to do so. This may sound impossible or even idealistic, and yet there are real working examples of schools and families that co-exist without anyone being forced or manipulated into doing things.

I often get asked the question ”How do I get my child to do what I want from their own intrinsic motivation?”

Because we live in a society based on the system of punishment and reward, it is sometimes easier said than done. If I don’t do as I am told, then I run the risk of a fine, prison, losing my job, or a court case against me. If I do what I am told then I get the reward of a paycheck, a raise and even a promotion. I believe that this leads to us living in a way that is disconnected from ourselves as we try to perform for a world that is demanding more and more. We have forgotten how to connect to what we are needing and how to live in service of life rather than in service of what is expected of us. Life becomes a struggle to get as many rewards as possible and avoid punishment and this is very costly for relationships and connection.

Ok! So now you may be asking:

"If I can't punish or reward my kids, then how the hell do I get them to co-operate?"

Nonviolent Communication (NVC) has been instrumental for me in answering this question.

NVC is a form of communicating, a philosophy and a way of life has greatly contributed to realising my dream of living in a world that is free of coercion and power struggles. Bringing the consciousness of NVC into my home and family has meant that my relationships are more harmonious and connected. Conflicts are resolved more efficiently. Difficult issues are no longer swept under the carpet and left to fester.

The process is simple, and centres around these four steps:

  • OBSERVING (the facts as they happened without interpretation),

  • FEELING (what am I feeling and not what am I thinking),

  • NEEDING (what are the needs, values, longings that are stimulating my feelings?)

  • REQUESTING (what would I like to ask of myself or the other that would support me in getting my needs met?)

When I put my attention on what I and the other are feeling and needing I enter into a place of connection and mutual understanding which then opens me up to exploring ways of meeting both of our needs. I have found this to build trust in my relationships. This means that there is less fighting our chosen strategies and more collaboration and interdependence. It is not always easy and perfect, and yet, in the words of Marshal Rosenberg "Everything worth doing is worth doing badly."

Are you interested to find out more?

Nic Burnand and Sarah Dekker are CNVC certified trainers in Nonviolent Communication.

Join one of our upcoming foundation courses to learn the basics of NVC, or get in touch to discuss bespoke training for a group.

Alternatively, private coaching sessions are also an option.

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