Behavior. Ah. There is so much noise out there on the internet about how to get your children to behave better. The commonly accepted way of getting your children to do something usually comes back to what social scientists refer to as Behaviorism. Behaviorism means conditioning someone to alter certain behavior patterns in spite of thought or feeling. There is an entire branch of social science devoted to exactly how this can be done called Applied Behavior Analysis. It is fascinating because used specifically and scientifically, you actually can get your child–or dog, for that matter–to complete any task you want. But it is not a perfect answer for parenting a child (with average non-pathological behaviors) for a number of reasons.
A part of behaviorism that parenting literature is ripe with is the idea of positive reinforcement. A simple explanation is: “Do this and get that“. This can be very valuable to use as a parent but should not be the model of shaping behavior for one to use in the long-term. I will explain further but first lets look at how is this different that a bribe.
Bribes are when you give the reward before the behavior is completed. (ex. Your child asks for a new toy when you are walking through the store. You oblige and give them the toy but tell them that you expect they are going to clean their room when you get home).
Positive reinforcement is when you complete the behavior and then get the reward. (ex. Your child asks for a new toy when you are walking through the store. You oblige and tell them that AFTER they clean their room, they can have the toy).
Bribes are ineffective because the child has no motivation to complete the desired task because they already have the reward. Positive reinforcement, on the other hand, gets the behavior completed and is therefore considered effective.
While positive reinforcement does get the behavior completed, the problem lies in giving rewards for completing behavior. Implicit in positive reinforcement is a power dynamic that tells kids that they are less than the adults. The problem with having this belief is that you are trying to raise individuals with thoughts, feelings, and hearts and a controlling paradigm does not teach kids to act responsibility, it only elicits compliance. Simply stated by Alfie Kohn in his book “Punished By Rewards” he asks: “Do rewards motivate? Yes, they motivate to get more rewards”. So yes, you will get the behavior completed, but only because their was a reward. There have been scientific experiments that actually prove that “children whose parents believe in using rewards to motivate them are LESS COOPERATIVE AND GENEROUS than their peers” (Kohn, p.174)
So what about punishment? How does that fit into this equation? Punishment reinforces the power dynamic between parent and child to an even greater extent and this can be detrimental to a positive parent-child relationship where your child sees you as someone to be turned to and trusted with the good and the bad that they need help sorting through as they mature. While a parents ego might feel good for having power, a child will feel unimportant, incompetent, impaired, weak, and unable which are exactly the traits you do not want someone who is learning about how to function as an individual in the world to have. Your relationship with your baby might be a matter of providing for mostly physiological needs but as children develop they need parents to guide them through the higher level needs as shown below on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:
So the question becomes, if we are not supposed to use rewards to get our children to behave in a certain way, how can we elicit compliance when we want something to get done? It is time to talk about intrinsic motivation.
“There is a difference between forgiving ourselves an occasional blunder and refusing to admit that certain approaches are blunders” (Kohn, p.233)
Instead of using your power to exert control or manipulation over your child, try tap into their innate desire to solve problems positively. Think about the content, collaboration, and choice. Content refers to whether the behavior you are trying to elicit is necessary and developmentally appropriate. Then, work with your child to collaborate on possible ways to get the behavior done. This problem-solving technique views the child as a parter who has equal power in coming up with solutions, not merely a droid who will do as we say. Give your child practice in problem solving and they will learn how to solve problems. Tell your child what to do all the time and they will always be looking for direction to follow. And finally, the final part in how to improve our child’s intrinsic motivation will be to give them choice. Let the kids be a part of choosing how the desired action will be done. Empowerment for a child does not have to mean disempowerment for a parent–it means you are doing your child (and yourself) a favor to unfold this human into their full potential instead of forcing your will on them.
I encourage you to process this information and come back to me with questions and comments. I am available to meet privately or speak publicly on this topic. Please contact me for further information.
Kohn, Alfie. Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993. Print.
Tsabary, Shefali. The Awakened Family: A Revolution in Parenting. New York: Viking, 2016. Print.
(c) 2016, Nurture: Family Education and Guidance