to punish or reward?

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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).

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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.

  1. Liz

    I also read that article and have been thinking about it since. My husband is gone more than half of the year total for work so i’ve found that when I’m exhausted, I succumb to bribery/rewards or taking privileges away much more than when I’m not exhausted. I want my daughter to help and have a good attitude without offering rewards or taking things away from her. I also hate how I feel after. Thanks for the idea to keep lines from the article as notes on your phone to reference, I need to do that. I’m looking forward to reading the comments from this post, thanks for sharing.

  2. ann

    such a great post! i came from a family of 7 and our parents taught us that everyone needs to do their part and pitch in. sometimes they might ask us to help clean up a mess that we didn’t make, or take care of something while another sibling rested. if we whined, ‘so and so’ doesn’t have to help set the table why do I have to do it…they would tell us, “focus on yourself. i didn’t ask so and so, i asked you.” later in life this ‘focus on yourself’ mentality has helped me time and time again. it isn’t about other people, if something is fair or not, it’s about yourself and the power you have over your attitude and situation. i have my own child now and hope to teach her the same idea that we’re a family and we each have a responsibility to each other and to the household.

  3. Kim

    Alfie Kohn’s book Unconditional Parenting is life changing -along the same line as the article I think. He’s an education guru – very much against both punishments and rewards – and anti-time out. I think you’d love his work.

  4. Emma

    So in accordance with everything said, but so difficult to do in the day to day ..! Without stopping trying! Let’s go Team!!

  5. Alexia

    I’m a child therapist and a mom and I agree with this. None of us are above a bribe or a reward or a punishment- sometimes you are ALSO HUMAN and sometimes you just need something DONE. but if that isn’t your general M.O. it really helps communication with your kids.
    I recommend the book Raising Humans by Ross Greene. He wrote a whole bunch of work about working with explosive kids, but in realizing his work is useful for ANY kid he repacked it into this book.
    Warning: too much of this method will result in a seven year old who says, “mom, you seem really frustrated you need space” and also “OH NO is it time for ANOTHER TALK???”
    Overall though it works great.

  6. Kimmie

    Hey! :) I loved this post! I personally am not a mother, so these are just observations and curiosities I have, so nothing serious over here! I used to work with children, a Montessori school specifically, and they really prided themselves on teaching children to be as independent as possible (obviously within their capabilities to their age, etc). Of course, they were supervised and we helped out if there was something they genuinely were stuck on. However, the idea of “I can help you clean your room” stuck out to me. I constantly saw that, by offering to do something like cleaning up toys that children took out themselves, it turned into the parent/teacher cleaning it up for them while the kids did maybe one or two toys, then moving onto the next thing. How do you make it work in a way that it’s clear to them that it’s their responsibility to tidy up after themselves, while not making them think “I can’t do this without mom/dad/teacher’s assistance?”

    I’ve loved watching your children grow throughout the years :) They are clearly very happy, loved children <3

  7. Sabine

    oh my gosh, thank you for starting this discussion over here. ever since our son has been born, and even more, now he gets older, I find myself telling him “do this or that and we do this or that” or “if you do/don’t do this, this will/won’t happen” and I hate it. I don’t want my child to only do sth for our family because he will be punished or rewarded. I would love him to do it, because we want our family to work and we want to help each other. great article! thank you!

    btw.: we’ve just returned from our trip to NYC and I had to think of you and your family when we had lunch at shake shack on upper west side :) all the best from austria!

  8. Maggie

    A book that has been super helpful to me both as a parent and in my work as a child therapist is How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids will talk. Lots of similar ideas to what you list above. https://www.amazon.com/How-Talk-Kids-Will-Listen-ebook/dp/B005GG0MXI
    The way you are working it out sounds beautiful.

  9. Nicholette

    I definitely don’t have advice or suggestions right now (it’s been one of those days, haha) but I just wanted to say that I love that you’re opening up this conversation. My little ones are both under three and my husband and I are always trying to improve how we speak to them, what we could have done better that day (after they go to bed), what went well, etc. I’m sure we’ll be doing that for a long time!

    As an aside, it means a lot when you mention that some days you’re on top of things and some days not so much because I’ve been reading your blog for a while and really look to you for inspiration. I hope that doesn’t sound too weird! But I was SO nervous to go anywhere or do anything when I had my son but thought “hey – this lady makes it work! I can too” So, it’s just nice to be reminded sometimes that I’m not the only one who has difficult days making it all work!

  10. Love this topic! I, too, strive to avoid punishments and rewards in my parenting. When I’m successful at this I feel like my daughter and I are more connected and she feels more respected and we a true family team. I don’t know if you’ve read this book, but it delves more into this topic and was definitely one of my life-changing parenting books: It’s Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting. Definitely worth the read!

  11. Kimberly

    Thank you for sharing these things! It’s always so good to hear what is working for other people as we navigate parenthood with our four little ones. I really liked the idea of motivation; it’s so easy to fall into the bribery trap…I’ll have to look up that article.

  12. Jennifer

    Thank you for posting this. I totally agree that it resonates and just makes sense. Parenting this way has been my goal ever since I read “Unconditional Parenting” by Alfie Kohn (great eye opening book). The article is great too-I love the specific phrases/responses. It’s tough when you’re tired,depressed, frustrated, or not getting the support of your spouse (my husband still wants to do rewards). Still, I know it DOES work. It also helps both you and your child feel so much more connected, which allows communication to flow even more freely. So so important as they get older. When I worked as a teacher before having kids, my mantra was “nothing motivates like success”. I know it works with parenting too. Making sure your child succeeds at a task will definitely motivate them to do more and even initiate something on their own. I think it probably helps us as parents too if we set smaller goals for ourselves each day that we can achieve and see the results so we don’t just focus on the guilt of not getting it perfect. It will take time, but it’s definitely worth it! Best of luck on your journey ahead!

  13. Lily

    I loved this article too! Falls in line with the Magda Gerber/Janet Lansbury/RIE school of parenting which I try to follow. It has really helped me to be a better parent, and I find that when we’re struggling it’s typically because I have been punitive or otherwise less respectful of my kids than I strive to be. It’s tough though in the moment!

  14. fefe

    Wow, I’m not a parent – but that article was so eye opening. Thanks for sharing! This part was very interesting:

    “Over decades, psychologists have suggested that rewards can decrease our natural motivation and enjoyment. For example, kids who like to draw and are, under experimental conditions, paid to do so, draw less than those who aren’t paid.”

    Guess that explains why I hated being a designer – ha!

    http://objectsicantafford.com/

  15. I agree that consistent and effective communication is the key to sustaining a healthy family. Everyone feels more loved when their perspective is at least heard (the understanding piece can take a while). I love that there are more conversations about the balance between reward and responsibility. When we connect responsibility with love, it makes a greater impact.

    Happy Thursday 💜
    http://www.lovecompassionatelee.com/thinkoutloud/footwear-womens-flats

  16. Kristy

    It makes you feel important when you are on a team! Love this approach :)

  17. Sarah

    Even though I’m not a parent I wanted to contribute with an experience I had when I was a nanny because I definitely see that sometimes speaking to a child exactly as you would an adult can be to everyone’s benefit. Kids are way smarter than we give them credit for.

    Anyway, the little girl I nannied was an extremely picky eater and mostly ate plain pasta. One day I decided to make it my mission to get her to try new things. I knew she wouldn’t like half of them but I wanted her to be willing to at least give it a shot. So I looked her straight in the face and told her, “listen kid, you do realize that everything you love was once foreign to you right? It wasn’t until you tried it that you actually liked it.” She then proceeds to look right back at me, smile and take a bite of whatever the heck it was that I was trying to get her to eat. And of course she didn’t like it, but from that day forward she was always willing to give it a shot. That was my proudest moment as a nanny!

  18. Leah

    Responding to Kimmie above – I have a 4yo and she knows she has to have a clean room before she gets any screen time. (When I read the NYTimes article the other day I immediately recognized the “when your room is clean we can go to the park!” shift – SO helpful.) But since she’s still 4 and easily distracted/overwhelmed by the task, I sit with her and suggest what she can put away next and let her know “we only have 3 more things before you’re done!” She’ll sometimes even do it on her own, unsupervised, if I tell her beforehand “I think you only have books and clothes to put away, it’ll be quick.”
    I occasionally have to sit on my hands to keep from helping her out when the going is extra slow :) but just that added direction/support seems to do the trick without morphing from “I’ll help you” into “I’m doing it all.”

  19. Allison

    I’m a school counselor and a mom of two littles ; I love punished by rewards by alfie kohn, he also has a blog with articles for those without the time to read a whole book. I also really like Ross Greene’s raising humans as mentioned above.

  20. Natalie

    It sounds like this article and your parenting align a lot with RIE parenting. Janet Lansbury’s books and—even easier for us busy moms—podcasts (“Unruffled”) are great resources, although they are geared more at the toddler and under years. Love that you opened this conversation—thanks, mama! :)

  21. Melissa lee

    Hey there! There are so many good resources in the comments here! Just thought I’d add my own: Janet Lansbury’s podcast unruffled is so great! It has similar roots as the article you shared.

  22. AshIsle

    I read this article as well and found it really useful. Although I feel I spend a majority of my nights, sleepless nights, and early mornings reading articles, researching parenting advice, and better communication strategies. I have only two babes so you certainly outnumber me but still seem to have a better grasp on parenting than I do. I always appreciate your positivity. Your kids seem very happy and your marriage seems to be thriving. Thanks again for your insight

  23. Madeleine

    I think that the book “Peaceful Parenting, Happy Siblings” has a lot of practical tips for parents who want to embrace this approach. I try very very hard to implement it, and fail a lot, and then try again. It’s definitely so hard. Thanks for the post! I like your safe, healthy, good mantra.

  24. s

    so Im not a mom but I have watched dozens and dozens of families and dealt with the behavior of 200 + students…
    my ideas are:
    1) get trained in montessori
    2) think of the words and requests you say as seeds. you dont see seeds grow immediately. they take years to grow. so does good behavior. changinf your expectations makes a huge difference.
    3) Inspire kids with questions like, ‘how can we do better?’ or ‘what ideas do you have to keep this room clean?’ kids have a lot of creative ideas, and they are much more inclined to do them if they have the power to figure out how to reach their awesome goals themselves. you can also guide kids to do the right thing with questions- “what should we be doing right now? how do we get ready for bed? what do you want to do first- brush teeth or put on jams? asking questions one on one can also be really effective if you have one person who is noy on board.
    4) inspire them with stories.
    5) have kids come up with their own rewards and punishments in a one-on-one conversation. rewards and punishments are so different for every kid. adults usually resort to chocolate and treats, regardless of whether the children actually *like* chocolate and treats. when adults do that to children, they are introducing them to an unhealthy diet that the chikd wouldnt otherwise have. additionally, it doesnt usually worj until the kid has been domesticated into actually liking treats.
    when kids have the power to come up with their own consequence, they are more invested in it. i had a little boy who had a tendency to hit students. incidentally he loved cleaning and wiping down the tables after lunch. when this student hit another student, he was not allowed to clean the tables. as soon as he realized that, he never hit another student!
    just like adults, kids really have their own preferences, and you can get them on board much faster if you give them some control in the consequences and agreements that you make together.

    love this article and topic. maybe you already know these things. love your sweet little fam.

  25. Yi Ying

    I have to share this with you- a book called The Whole Brain Child, or for a slightly easier read, No Drama Discipline (both by Dan Siegel). I’m a social worker in Singapore and these books have been so great in helping me teach parents how to parent in a way that meets the children’s developmental and emotional needs (:

  26. Henri

    There is an apisode on exactly this topic coming up on my favourite research based parenting blog: my parenting mojo. Its an interview with Alfie Kohn!

  27. Debb s

    What are some punishments/consequences that you have to be affective in your home? What didn’t work for you? Thank you

  28. Colleen

    This is such a great topic. I am taking part of a parenting program currently, and the ‘When – Then’ statements make a huge difference instead of using the ‘if you do this…’ saying ‘if’ is like setting the child up for failure, as you’re not actually expecting them to do what you want them to by saying ‘if’ but when we say ‘when you get your toys put away, then we can put that puzzle together!’… I see a difference after just a short period of time. Also using change time warnings to help the child adjust with transitions can be helpful. We have been having far fewer meltdowns using this. You can incorporate both a change time warning with a when-then statement as well. We may say, ‘in 10 minutes we are going to leave the park, and then we will head home’…so the child is aware of the change ahead of time, and what the next plan is.
    Rewards don’t have to be big items or sugary treats. Rewards can often be extra activities done together, as a family. Maybe doing a puzzle together, extra bubbles in the bathtub, building a fort, making something together in the kitchen. I mean, these are all things we may do already with our kids but they can still be rewards too.
    Always open to hearing and learning what works and what doesn’t work for other parents!

  29. Ify

    I really love this post. I grew up (and still live) in a country where a lot of our issues have been caused by the triumph of self interest over the common good. Thankfully, I was raised by parents who tirelessly instilled in us the notion that nothing works if everyone doesn’t pitch in. They aren’t perfect. But they have given me an un-shakeable dedication to doing my own part. So I love the aspect of helping your kids understand that the home can’t function if certain things aren’t done. I remember whinging to my mother about cleaning up a mess that my baby brother made. She said that it didn’t matter who made the mess, it was OUR house, and didn’t I want OUR house to be clean for everyone, myself included? Parenting is so hard, and the older I get, the more I realise how much it took for them to get it right as many times as they did.

  30. Cara

    I’m late to the party, but in a very similar tone as the article, I just recently finished (and loved) How Toddlers Thrive by Dr. Tovah Klein. It was a surprisingly fast read, and so, so insightful. We try very hard to be aware that our daughter is still very young, and requires patience that seems to be pulled from the depths of nowhere. But these little years are so critical, and I think it’s wonderful that more and more people are beginning to have these types of discussions and thoughts. It gives me faith in our future generations. Thanks for sharing!

  31. Nicole

    Check out Simply On Purpose on Instagram – she is amazing and has all kinds of wonderful advice! I also loved Unconditional Parenting and everything Janet Lansbury & Magda Gerber. Thanks for sharing this article and what you do as a family – it’s so important and really speaking to where I am at with parenting my 4 year old.

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