josh and i read a new york times article the other day and we haven’t been able to stop talking about it since! the one all about what is better for children, rewards or punishments? (the author, psychotherapist heather turgeon, argues neither.) anyway, it’s a short article and definitely worth the read. we keep going back to it in our conversations the past several days and i basically started copying and paste-ing large chunks of the authors advice into the notes section on my phone so i could try to apply some of the ways she articulated talking with children into my everyday conversations with all of mine.
my kids have taught me so much over the past seven and a half years since becoming a mother. they’ve taught me a lot about love. a lot about patience. a lot about navigating life on little sleep. but one of the biggest and most important things they’ve taught me is how critical and essential good communication can be. for any relationship, really. but especially when trying to understand a little one, or be understood by said little one.
i loved how she said that “no matter how irrational or difficult a moment might seem, we can respond in a way that says: “i see you. i’m here to understand and help. i’m on your side. we’ll figure this out together.”
i can pinpoint a handful of times from my own life where i felt desperately misunderstood when i was little or growing up, like i didn’t have anyone in my court willing to listen or help me. when hurtful words or threats are thrown around, it’s really stressful when you’re tiny and they can really impact you. even years later. looking back, it seems like some of this was because expectations weren’t clear, people weren’t communicating, or punishments were given out quickly for breaking rules i wasn’t aware were even rules. obviously, parenting is crazy hard and i struggle with navigating these very things now, too! it’s hard and tricky for everyone, for sure.
i can see how that same mentality can be applied with rewards as well. josh and i struggle with how offering rewards in exchange for good behavior can bring on negotiating sometimes, or a sense of not wanting to contribute to the family or be a team player unless incentivized to do so. one of the reasons i liked this article is because she explains so clearly that neither rewards or punishments are helpful some times.
it’s all something i’m still working on every day, and there are days where i feel like i’m really on top of it, and other days where i am just so bad at all of it. i am not above a parenting bribe! i have done more than i can count with all of my kids! but the idea of trying to work as a team with my little ones, seeing them as capable members of our family who i talk to as i would an adult, without going straight to bribing or threatening punishments, it’s something that makes so much sense in my head. it’s also proven to work when we’ve tried it.
what really resonated with me when reading the article was the idea of focusing on motivation over reward. “instead of saying: if you clean your room we can go to the park. you better do it, though, or no park. say: when your room is clean, we’ll go to the park. i can’t wait. let me know if you need some help.”
something we’ve done recently that has been successful is writing out a list together of the things our family needs to do each day in order for our life to properly function and then signing it (like if no one is willing to help unload the dishwasher, we get behind on the dishes and eventually the kitchen can’t function properly. same goes with all the toys. if we don’t keep things in their proper place, it becomes difficult to find the exact toy we are looking for, and that can be frustrating for everyone. honestly a huge part is just explaining things in ways they understand.) anyway, the author suggests having family meetings and brainstorming a list together of what needs to be done in the family. we refer to our family a lot as a team, so when we have these sorts of meetings, we talk about what will make our team the very best team for our family for the day. our kids love signing things, and we noticed if someone signs something like our brainstorming list of how we all can contribute, it feels a little bit more official. we are all in this together, we have all agreed to be a team (a bedtime team, a team when we’re out of the house together and spending a day outside, a team when we’re in the kitchen prepping for a meal).
for me, i don’t want a crazy strict household where everything is so in-line that it might begin to feel rigid. i’m not striving for crazy rules and structure and perfect obedience either. of course there are situations that require us to be stricter or use more discipline, but we also try not to intervene unless it’s really necessary so our kids can learn from their own mistakes and work things out on their own (hopefully after we have shown them how or given them tools to do so somewhere along the way). to help us focus and know when to intervene, josh and i decided on three things we as parents are trying to focus on and wrote these down on our chalkboard wall in our old apartment for the kids to see all the time. just three things we can all think about and work on (instead of a hundred!) as a family: safe, healthy, good. it’s our responsibility to keep them safe. to make sure they are healthy. to help them be good people, even when small. we have told them that we are going to try and not bother them with lots of rules and want them to make decisions on their own. and the rules and discussions we do have have to be grounded in three three things. but we’re a team first and foremost and these things all work better when all the team players are on the same page. and having just three priorities helps us all know what is important and to not sweat the small stuff (which should be everything else not on the list).
anyway, loved the article and loved how it made me think more about how we speak to our children and how that can impact our relationships and also their own lives in such powerful ways.
so many of you often have such great advice or ideas you’re implementing in your own families and lives…would love to hear your thoughts on rewards and punishments, and what has worked in your own home with your little ones.