Thoughtful Parenting: Consequences vs. punishment
June 4, 2017
Chris Young/For Steamboat Today
How do children learn right from wrong, good from bad and other important life lessons? We parents, in the beginning of our children's lives, are their most powerful teachers. Children learn from watching adult behavior. Our smiles, frowns, laughter and hugs, among a few examples, are powerful teachers. When we smile with acceptance and love, we teach our children they are worthwhile and lovable little beings.
As our children grow older, beginning at age 4 or 5 (depending on the child's development path), parents want more tools to use to help shape their children's behavior to be kind, loving and thoughtful. When our children misbehave, we want to teach them to not repeat the behavior. When our children do the right thing, we want to let them know they're doing well. So, what works?
A very basic behavioral control method involves rewards and punishment. We can reward proper behavior with treats, special outings and the like. We can punish improper behavior by isolation, withdrawal of privileges or loss of favorite toys.
This method assumes children are encouraged by rewards and discouraged by punishments, but research has shown many children are immune to that technique.
Parents wring their hands wondering why little Beth continues to pinch her baby brother after she is told to stop, taken out of the room and denied a treat. The use of the reward and punishment method assumes children have in mind that, if they do well, something good will happen, and if they do poorly, something bad will happen.
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The reason this doesn't work is because young children's brains aren't wired to think ahead of time (predict) what will happen if they do or don't do something. In our adult world, we wonder why people who ruin their lives committing crimes repeat the same behavior after leaving prison. Even adults don't always think ahead to possible outcomes. We are caught up in the act or the moment.
Punishments are not teachers. Children made to sit in the hall for misbehaving in the classroom don't learn how to behave in the classroom. Children who are sent to bed early because they didn't stop watching TV when told to don't learn how to stop watching TV. Instead, children get angry and blame their parents for what happened.
The ability to use cause and effect reasoning is vital to how our children learn. We want them to experience such benign outcomes as not having a lollipop any more if they drop the one they have. Or, my favorite, toys aren't available to play with if they aren't put away. Children learn by trial and error, and making mistakes is usually a very powerful teacher. As parents, we observe our children's behavior, express empathy for the child when he or she misbehaves, or makes a bad choice and do our best to devise a consequence or outcome that will help the child learn from his or her mistakes.
So, what does work? Following is an example. One of the most challenging times of the day for parents is getting everyone out the door in the morning, so everyone arrives at work or school or daycare on time. Reminding, giving three chances, yelling and prodding don't always work during this stressful period. What happens if we send our children to school or daycare without breakfast or still in their pajamas? Will they learn that they have to get dressed and/or eat before the car leaves? If we plan ahead and let teachers know what's happening, then yes, children will learn from these natural or logical consequences. The consequences happen as a result of the child's choices, not because of a random punishment.
In this example, children's clothes are sent along with them, and caregivers know the children will be hungry and must wait until regular snack time to eat.
Our children will grow up to be caring, thoughtful and responsible when they are taught by adults who are caring, respectful and empathic and who understand how children learn.
"The Explosive Child," by Ross W. Greene, Ph.D., is a helpful resource for guiding parents to de-escalate behavioral and emotional challenges presented by their children and move on to problem-solving. After all, usually children's misbehavior is an expression of a problem.
Chris Young, Ph.D. is a retired licensed psychologist who specialized in children and families. She can be reached at 970-291-9259 for consultation.