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How to Discipline your Children Without Rewards or Punishment

It is very tempting to use rewards and punishments when disciplining your child, especially since they often do work in the short-term. The article below speaks to the downside of using rewards and punishments and the long-term benefits of teaching your child the importance of behaving a certain way because it’s the “right thing to do” rather than for a special treat. Maria Montessori believed that children are by nature intrinsically motivated. They have an inner sense of working hard because it feels satisfying, to figure out how to fit all ten knobbed cylinders into the block correctly without having to rely on someone to tell them they did it correctly (many Montessori materials are self-correcting). So the next time you are tempted to give your child something in order to get them to do what you want, think for a moment about your end goal.

How to Discipline your Children Without Rewards or Punishment

By: Rebecca English

“Discipline is necessary for children, but we need to teach them to self-discipline, not bribe them to be good.” Emiliano

Many parents are moving towards “gentle parenting”, where they choose not to use rewards (sticker charts, lollies, chocolates, TV time) as bribes and punishments (taking away privileges, time out) to encourage good behavior, but encourage good behavior for the sake of doing the right thing.

Gentle parents argue that to offer rewards and punishments overrides a child’s natural inclination towards appropriate behavior by teaching them to behave in certain ways purely to receive a reward, or to avoid punishment.

What is discipline?

For most people it would seem impossible to discipline without rewards and punishments. However, it depends on your understanding of “discipline”. Discipline always has a silent “self” in front of it because it’s about controlling yourself.

So, in the case of parenting, it’s about helping children learn to manage themselves, their feelings, their behavior and their impulses. We want our children to develop a sound moral compass, to sort behaviors, impulses and feelings into “appropriate” and “inappropriate” and be able to justify judgments about their choices.

When the term discipline is used, it is often in a sense that implies punishment. This meaning is implied because discipline is associated with a behaviorist view of how humans learn. Behaviorism is associated with conditioning, a process whereby learning is an association between behavior and good or bad outcome, just like in Pavlov’s dog experiment.

However, behaviorism is used less and less because human behavior is seen as more complex than a simple rewards/punishments model suggests. Behaviorism is also problematic because it implies people behave in desirable ways only to secure rewards or to minimize punishments.

We don’t want our children to behave in a way that is desirable just because they might get something or get into trouble if caught. We want our children to do the right thing because they know it’s right, and because they want to do right.

Motivating children intrinsically not extrinsically

Behaviorism teaches children to look for external motivations to behave in a desirable way. It has been said that rewards and punishments override a child’s natural inclination to do the right thing because they rely on extrinsic (external things that are use to motivate us) rather than intrinsic (a motivator that is internal and usually a feeling of well-being that comes over us when we choose to do something) motivators.

There is a great deal of research into workplaces showing that people do not perform better when they’re offered what are known as external motivators. Surprisingly that includes money, a better office, a better title or certificates.

Workplace research suggests that people will behave in desirable ways in their workplace when they feel happy. People feel happy at work when they feel valued and they feel valued when they have control over their life. Control over life is called agency. Most of the research reveals that people who have agency are happier and more productive.

Similarly, in children, agency is the ability to have some control over what they do. If we think about it, children have very little control over their lives. Their parents or caregivers determine most of their day – when they eat, what they wear, when they can go out, when they stay in, when they nap, just about everything.

While there are serious safety concerns with children, we can soften our approach and give them more agency over their lives. The effect is likely to be happier children who feel more in control and are more likely to work with us to ensure everyone is happy.

But, we can’t give children free rein, it’d be mayhem!

You are probably reading this and thinking, in horror, that we can’t trust children to have control over their lives. After all, they’d play with knives, set fire to themselves/the dog/the house, play with the gas hobs or run into the road.

Children need limits. They need to know what’s safe and what’s unsafe. Telling a child they can’t do something unsafe is not the same as punishing them. Instead, you can follow these steps:

  1. Stop the behavior. If the child is about to run into the road, scoop them up and hold them. If the child is about to hurt the dog, hold their hand and remove the weapon, if there is one. If the child is about to touch the hotplate, move them away. If they’re being rude, you need to stop them too.

  2. Say something along the lines of “(action) is unsafe, I won’t let you do (action)”. For example, if they’re rude you can say “What you just said was hurtful, I won’t let you be hurtful to me/your sibling/anyone else.”

  3. They might cry; prepare for that. And that’s okay. I cry when I get a speeding ticket but it doesn’t stop the offense being recorded.

  4. If they are crying, try to listen to them and reassure them we’ve heard they’re upset. After all, they’ve just had their agency compromised by our concerns for their safety. You could say something along the lines of “I know you didn’t mean to be hurtful, but saying things like that can make people sad.”

We need to help our children develop discipline and we can do this without compromising their sense of self and agency. It is about following the golden rule of life “How would I want to be treated if I were in my child’s position?”

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