Should I use the carrot or the stick? You’re asking the wrong question.
Many of us were raised under a system of punishments versus rewards. Good behavior results in the carrot, bad behavior results in the stick. Over the past few decades, researchers and psychologists have found that this system is not the most effective way to raise empathetic, cooperative, capable children. Here’s why:
The problem with punishments. The worst part about punishments is that when they’re enforced on young children, it elicits a fight-or-flight response, which means the part of the brain responsible for learning shuts down, and the part that triggers tantrums (and other defense mechanisms) kicks in. Punishments are also an open invitation into feeling shameful, angry or rebellious, and they mostly teach us how not to get caught next time.
- An alternative to punishment: Assist. Punishment says, “I want you to suffer for what you did,” but assistance says, “I want to help you figure out why you did this, and what to do better next time.” Both of these might result in the same thing (leaving the park, turning off the game, going to your room) but have a much different approach.
The problem with rewards. Research suggests that rewards can reduce our innate motivation and enjoyment. What happens is the external reward (the carrot) outshines the child’s internal motivation for doing something and in turn, doesn’t actually change his behavior (for example, children who are rewarded for sharing actually do so less).
- An alternative to reward: Motivate. Instead of saying, “If you do your chores we can get ice cream. Do it, or else no ice cream;” say, “When your chores are done we’ll get ice cream. I can’t wait, it’s going to be so fun! Let me know when you think you’ll be done.” This small shift tells your child a very different story.
This concept of punishments and rewards is based on the assumption that our children need to be controlled by us, and it tells them that we don’t think they have good intentions. But take heart, mamas, because even in the most difficult moments with our children, we can always respond in a way that helps them feel seen, heard and understood.
This was originally published in the MOPS mom email. For more great mom content, subscribe to our mom email twice a month.