I’m Not Raising Corporate America

Photo by Justin Lowery

I’ve often heard parents rationalizing punishments and rewards by citing the real world. When the kids grow up, they’ll be in the real world. In the real world, they’ll have to get a job and then, they had better be prepared. Punishments and rewards are everywhere, in the real world.

This misses a key point. I’m not raising Corporate America. I’m raising my children. So, while some day they may find themselves in a corporate position faced with a choice to make, right now they are children living their lives. I don’t run my family by Corporate America’s values – to gain as much money (i.e. reward) as possible, often at the expense of others. And frankly, if my children are ever in such a position, I hope they look beyond the immediate reward and follow what they know in their hearts is the right thing to do – not because of someone else’s beliefs or because of some extrinsic reward – but because they are following what they believe.
In Corporate America, a person can make the choice to walk away and leave. They voluntarily choose to be in that position to earn a wage with whatever consequences go with their choices. Except in rare occassions, children do not have the choice to leave their parents and family of origins in order to find a more suitable position should they deem it necessary. Arbitrary punishments and rewards only exacerbate that parental power. If you want to compare punitive parenting with the work force, a more likely comparison would be with slavery. There is no chance of leaving besides running away with the hope of not being found.
Most of us look for jobs that are rewarding. However, that reward generally isn’t the almighty dollar. The most rewarding jobs are the ones where people are doing what they enjoy intrinsically. A few companies recognize this. Google is a prime example of this, despite its huge size. Employees at Google have a voice in matters. Recognizing that happy workers are more productive workers, Google strives to provide an enjoyable work environment rather than trying to control its employees.
At the end of the day, however, work isn’t all there is to life, and most people would say that their relationships are what really matter to them. Rather than trying to control our children with punishments or rewards, we talk to them – like the people they are. Sure, some of the people in our family are smaller and younger, but these are still relationships. And the last time I checked, we are living in the real world.

Rewards: the Other Edge of the Sword

Photo by Lemsipmatt

Behavioral training uses punishments and rewards in order to extract desired behaviors from the subject in question. Numerous studies support that the use of punishment in children, regardless of whether or not the punishment is physical in nature, has detrimental effects. Besides dissolving the connection between parent and child, punishments do not help the child to do better or improve the behavior. Many parents deem this to mean that they should rely on rewards instead. What they fail to realize, and what research also  supports, is that rewards are merely the other side of a two-edged sword.

It may seem benign to offer a reward in order to get a child to do what we want. It seems simple enough. However, by offering a reward for a specific behavior, you are simultaneously offering a punishment in the form of the withheld reward in the event that the desired behavior is not produced. Regardless of form, they both heavily involve extrinsic motivation – fear of punishment or the hope of a reward – in order to coerce others into behaving in a certain way. Behavioral training does have its place. Used short term, it has helped many people change habits. Used as an extrinsic tool to aid an intrinsic desire, behavioral conditioning has its benefits. However, B.F. Skinner, the founder of behaviorism, along with other noted researchers in the area such as Ivan Pavlov, were adamentaly against the use of behavioral therapy as a parenting technique. Long term, behavioral conditioning erodes a subject’s reliance on intrinsic motivation. Eventually, when the reward or punishment is no longer offered, or no longer is considered substantial by the subject, there is no longer motivation to continue the desired behavior. Reputable behaviorists do not recommend punishments or rewards as the basis for a parenting system.Lack of intrinsic motivation has aided in many monstrosities over time. When people rely on fear or rewards to motivate them, they are less likely to stand up for what they believe in or to have a strong sense of values. They are more easily manipulated and swayed by others. Some parents may view this as a positive side effect, but that opinion generally changes when the parent is no longer the figure the child turns to for extrinsic motivation. Children who are raised without extrinsic motivation are more likely to have deeply held personal beliefs and to act upon those beliefs, regardless of what other people may think.

the illusion of control…

Digital Artwork by Hartig Kopp Delaney

Adults utilize many different methods in order to control the behavior of children, whether through punishments or rewards, in an attempt to have what they deem are respectful and well-behaved kids. What I think many of them fail to realize is that one can only truly control one’s own actions. We can never completely control another person’s actions. Sometimes we can create the illusion of controlling someone, but it’s never true control. Every person has the ability to make their own decisions, and while some will choose to humor you or feign compliance in order to avoid punishments or receive rewards which they feel justify the actions, they are still in control of themselves.

By attempting to control another’s behavior through extrinsic forces, there is a false dichotomy of control, and in it, no one has total control. My husband and I do not use punishments or rewards with our children. We talk to our kids. We listen to them. We discuss with them how our actions, words, and decisions affect ourselves and other people. We model appropriate behavior. In the end, the choices they make are theirs, whether or not we, as adults, acknowledge that fact. I would much rather my children do something because they have thought about it and decided it is right for them, than to react to someone else’s attempt at controlling them.

At the end of the day, when our children are all grown, we all want them to make the decisions that are right for them rather than doing whatever someone tells them to do. Just because someone says to jump off a bridge doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. If children are never allowed to make their own decisions in an environment where they have a loving parent to bounce ideas off of and who is there to help them, how will they fair when suddenly they have to make decisions on their own without having done so before?