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.
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.
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?