If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.
– Albert Einstein
Apparently Einstein and I have something in common as am not a fan of reward charts for behavior. I’ve tried them. Sure, at first, they work great. But then, after a little time, the rewards through stickers and prizes gets expensive, and it doesn’t really teach anything except extrinsic motivation.
On the other side, how does the negative reinforcement of actions affect a child’s intrinsic motivation?
Does it result in positive behavior for the right reasons? Or does it just create a false motivation, one driven by fear and punishment? Consequently, if a child is hearing constant negative feedback for their behavior, how long do you think it takes before they start to believe that they are a bad person?
I would venture to guess, that as parents, we all have a common goal :: to raise happy, kind, and successful human beings. If we are all hoping for the same goal for our children, why are we trying to manipulate them into desired behaviors by giving them material rewards for when they do things that are part of life and human decency? Sure, it may work on some kids, but not all. Later on down the road, too, how do you begin to motivate your child to cooperate or do nice things if they are expecting money, or a toy car, or an ice cream cone, as they approach their teen years and adult years? We all know that at your job, if you complete your work, it isn’t likely your boss is going to buy you an ice cream cone once a week to tell you “Good job doing what I am paying you to do.” Many of us do well and work hard at our job because we WANT TO be good at our job. We are intrinsically motivated.
So how do we create this in our children?
Motivation to behave or be a good person can’t be successful forever if you are constantly giving prizes … the same goes if you are constantly punishing a child for a negative behavior but not giving them any feedback on how to correct the behavior. Our kids are human; they have bad days, they could be tired or hungry, or even anxious or depressed. Just because their problems are seemingly innocuous to us doesn’t mean they are not big to them. They learn from us. If, every time they have a bad day and speak rudely to us, and we just put them in time out for it, are they learning how to correct the problem? How do you think they may try to solve the problem in the future if they are not guided or taught? Or, even more notable, what if we speak to them rudely or disrespectfully – how do you think they would respond? Would they put US in time out?
I have recently read several books by Dr. Ross W. Greene, a child psychologist whose books have changed the way we parent. The main hallmark of how he encourages interaction with our children is “Kids will do well if they can.” Meaning a lot of times, the reason our children may have negative behaviors is because the expectations put on them far exceed their ability to cope and manage them, not because they want to be a pain in the butt. I know, as an adult, if I am in a situation that is difficult for me or makes me angry, I will react with negative behavior. But fortunately, because I am an adult and I have developed skills for managing my emotions, I can pull myself out of a situation and go have my breakdown in private. Unfortunately, our children don’t have that luxury. Their emotional intelligence is not fully developed, yet we expect them to react as though they have the same coping skills. It is up to us, as parents, to teach them, not just put them in time out to figure it out for themselves.
What works in my family
In our family, we feel like reward and behavior charts do nothing to address what causes negative behaviors in children. In order for our children to develop into good human beings, they need to be taught valuable skills in decision making, problem solving, collaboration, and social interaction. Of course, we all know that discipline is not one size fits all, and what works for my family may not work for another. Every child is different and every family has different struggles. Letting go of sticker charts and tokens has made a huge improvement in our family life, and if you try it out, I hope it does the same for you.
This post isn’t to say that I never punish my child.
There are plenty of times when privileges are taken away or he gets time out. But those incidents come with a discussion and often a time out happens by his choice, because he needs and wants time to sit and reflect on his own. Do I think it is perfect? No, not at all. But I do believe that it is far more effective than a sticker on a chart or a token to cash in for a prize. After all, when he does nice things now, he does it because it feels good to help someone or say something nice, not because he’ll get a new Hot Wheel.