Parenting Without Punishments or Rewards

Most conventional approaches to parenting use some form of punishments and rewards to discipline children, to teach them right from wrong and to control their behaviour. This is based on a behaviorist approach to parenting which presumes that we need to teach our children how to behave well and that the best way to do so is to make them suffer somehow when they behave “badly” or to persuade them to behave “well” by giving them external encouragement. These approaches suggest that we punish our children in a way that hurts them, either with physical violence, withdrawal of love, removal of freedom, time-out or some other way to make them pay for their behaviour, and that we bribe them with bonuses, payments, privileges, treats or love to “encourage” them to be cooperative and “good”. These approaches to parenting can either be more permissive where there are no consequences for how our children behave and instead they are encouraged with positive reinforcement to behave well, or they can be authoritarian where children are forced to comply with their parents’ wishes.

Aware Parenting has a very different perspective, one that understands that our children’s true nature is to be loving and cooperative and that, if they are not behaving in that way, it is a sign that they either need more information, have unmet needs or have accumulated feelings that need to be released. One of the central aspects of Aware Parenting is not using punishments, rewards, praise or bribes with our children and, instead, looking at our children’s behaviour as a form of communicating needs and feelings and responding by looking to identify what the unmet need might be and by listening to their feelings. We also offer democratic and respectful approaches to family life.

Research definitively confirms that hitting children is damaging emotionally, physically and intellectually and does nothing to teach children how to behave acceptably. It is not discipline, it is violent bulling and assault.

Alfie Kohn (author of ‘Punished by Rewards’ and ‘Unconditional Parenting’) argues that punishments and rewards are ineffective and manipulative ways to control our children. He cites considerable research that shows that extrinsic motivators including praise, rewards and punishments are not merely ineffective over the long run but are also counterproductive in terms of the things that we most want for our children. He argues that, as soon as love becomes something that we use to reward our children, it stops being love and instead becomes manipulation and control. He suggests that we ask ourselves “what do we want our children to do and what do we want their reason for doing so to be”?

When we instead move to a more respectful way of parenting, we move from looking for ways to get our children to do as they are told, to focusing on meeting their needs and listening to their feelings in a way that ensures they are more likely to be cooperative and loving.

The Aware Parenting approach teaches our children that they are always worthy of love and respect, that is unconditional and not dependent on their behaviour. So if they are behaving in a way that we are finding challenging, instead of responding harshly and trying to use fear, shame or judgement to “make” them behave well, we move in with loving curiosity to explore what is going on in the moment and take steps to meet their needs.

The hidden cost of punishment and controlling our children is the negative impact it has on our relationship with our child. They learn that they cannot be themselves, they have to be obedient rather than authentic, they fear their parents, feel disconnection, humiliation, resentment, guilt, shame and disempowerment.

Not only this, but using punishments and rewards stops “working” once our children get bigger and we are no longer able to control their behaviour. How do you insist your older child goes to the naughty spot? How do you force your 14 year old to give you their phone? As our children get older, our power over them will inevitably run out and then what….? Punishments and rewards teach our children to lie and be sneaky, that bullying others is ok, that we can manipulate and control others by making them fear us and that its worth denying our feelings and needs if we get something good out of it. And they teach our children that we cannot be trusted.

The Aware Parenting approach deals with the underlying cause of our children’s off-track behaviour, rather than applying a harsh temporary band aid that destroys our relationship with our children and is likely to be the cause of further challenging behaviour. Parents sometimes worry that their kids won’t know right from wrong, or parents won’t have any authority or respect, or that we are reinforcing or encouraging bad behaviour if we don’t use these techniques. But we don’t need to teach our children how to behave and certainly not by withdrawing our love, isolating them or hurting them.

The results of parenting and responding to challenging behaviour in this way is that our children know they are worthy of our love not matter how they are behaving in the moment. They learn they can trust us to support them when things are tough. They know that we are a safe place to share how they are feeling and that we are their ally. They learn that making mistakes and messing up is ok and they don’t have to be perfect to be lovable. They learn how to meet their needs and express how they are feeling when things feel challenging. When they are treated with respect, they learn how to be respectful.

Whilst not using punishments and rewards is simple, it is not always an easy thing to do. Sometimes our unexpressed hurts about discipline from our childhood get in the way of how we can respond to our children’s behaviour. This is another reason why getting listening and support for our worries and to heal the pain we all carry from childhood makes it much easier to not react to our children’s behaviour but to respond in a mindful and loving way. We need support so that we can be the parent that we want to be.

Spending time together laughing and playing with our children, prioritizing our relationship with them and choosing to parent with compassionate connection and listening means our children’s behaviour is less likely to be challenging, they are more likely to be cooperative and, when they are off-track, we know exactly how to support them back to balance and back to being their natural cooperative, loving selves.

For more information, I highly recommend “Cooperative and Connected: by Aletha Solter and “Punished by Rewards” by Alfie Kohn. If you would like to receive my articles, information about my courses or offerings or my special offers, please sign up here Aware Parenting with Joss email list

Aware Parenting with Joss

I am so passionate about sharing this beautiful approach with parents. I believe that Aware Parenting is THE solution for so many of the challenges facing the world. - Joss Goulden, Aware Parenting Instructor
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