The way in which we speak to children can greatly impact how they receive the message. Choosing to use empathy and incentives, over rewards and punishments, fosters trust, instead of obedience. Children can practice problem solving skills by making choices to support their needs, yet parents can set boundaries and encourage compliance with tasks. Compliance and obedience are two of my least favourite words, but sometimes we need our children to comply and this is a more responsive way of doing that, without devaluing your child’s feelings. If the parent is not mindful of how they want their message to be received, small variances can easily turn an incentive into a reward, and a choice into a punishment.
Here is an example of all three, using a common trigger for intense emotions, the grocery store:
“I hear you that going to the grocery store makes you angry because it is boring. I don’t like going to the grocery store either.”
Starting with empathy allows you to validate your child’s feelings by acknowledging that you hear that they do not want to go to the grocery store. By telling them you also don’t want to go, it demonstrates that other people have feelings too and not wanting to go to the grocery store is something that many people experience. If this is all you do, you have done enough. We don’t really need to fix our children’s problems for them and we don’t need to force them to fix their own problems. Having emotions about not wanting to go to the grocery store is fine. It is when those feelings turn into a refusal to go that an incentive is sometimes useful in helping your child find the joy in such a boring task.
“Would you like to pick out something special while we’re there?”
*In this example, a material incentive is used to demonstrate the clear difference in wording between an incentive, a reward and a punishment/threat, however non-material incentives are always better.
By offering for your child to “pick-out something special”, you are not rewarding “good” behaviour, as the incentive is not contingent on behaviour. You are simply giving them something to look forward to. I do this myself for tasks I do not want to do. I will buy myself a coffee, or go to the grocery store that is farther so I can enjoy the beautiful drive through farmland, or sometimes I put on music when I’m cleaning. Saying things like “remember, we get to drive by the horses on the way” or “you do like to ride in those carts that look like cars” helps your child learn to see the joy in life. How the simple things are what get us through all the boring stuff we have to do every day.
Some people may say “aren’t you afraid that if you reward the child’s bad behaviour, she’s going to act like that every time for a treat?” I would say “what bad behaviour? The child expressed her feelings about the grocery store. If she had acted out in some way, out of frustration, such as throwing a toy, I would take the toy away, but I would continue to empathize and support her as she processes her emotions.” The incentive is not contingent on behaviour. She will soon realize this. If you do not use rewards, your child likely does not see the world as a system of bartering, so they do not expect a treat for “good” behaviour. You would be surprised how hard it is for children to not act like children, even for a reward. If my child’s distress continued to escalate, I would consider the situation to have gone from a typical protest into an emotional outburst and I would treat it as such (for information on how to respond to an emotional outbursts click here).
Another example of an incentive is:
“How would you like to grab your school bag and put some books/snacks/toys in there so you have something to do?”.
Offering to fill a school bag with things to do helps her find solutions to her own problem. You could also offer to sing/listen to a favourite song on the way, or agree to take a trip to the park later, whatever works for your family.
With older children, you can ask:
“What do you think we could do so you don’t get bored at the grocery store?”
This helps them resolve their own issue and begin learning how to plan for doing unwanted tasks and unpleasant feelings. My eldest often says, “hold on, I have to get my school bag” before we go to the doctor’s office because he knows he’s going to be bored and it has helped in the past to bring something to do.
The most important part of an incentive is that it is not contingent on behaviour. It is never used as a bartering tool and you must not threaten to take away the incentive if your child acts in a way that is displeasing to you. If you were in a grumpy mood about going to the grocery store, would you punish yourself by not stopping for coffee? Personally, I would buy a fancier coffee and possibly a cookie too. Why don’t we afford children these typical adult coping strategies? Why do we force them to not have feelings just so our trip to the grocery store is easier? And what are we teaching them by doing this? We are not teaching them how to process and cope with difficult emotions. We are telling them, “your feelings are not valid. I do not care that you don’t like the grocery store. Telling me how you feel just makes me more frustrated and angry with you.” Why not send the message “your feelings are valid, I do care about how you feel, let’s work together to figure this out”?
“If you are listening to Daddy at the grocery store you can get a treat.”
This means the reward is contingent on “good” behaviour, making it a lose/lose situation. The child is likely not going to be able to not act like a child the WHOLE time, so the father will possibly threaten to not purchase the treat, or put the treat back. Both will likely end up feeling like a failure; the child, who was just acting like a child in a not-so-child-friendly environment, and the father, who now feels like a failure for not being able to “control” his child’s behaviour. Robin Grille would say that learning to behave for a reward is not a skill we want to teach anyways. “As a result of early manipulation, we grow up trying hard to please, or we learn to use our wiles to impress, in order to get the goodies – at the expense of being our natural selves. We develop a phony or false self that distorts our relationships with others.” Robin Grille.
When we tried rewards, I just felt like I was at war, or in heated negotiations with an unreasonable toddler all the time. It was honestly a nightmare of emotional outbursts everywhere we went. Having to carry my son kicking and screaming from every public place, including every playground, birthday party or social engagement, was disheartening to say the least. I knew we both could do better. When I made this simple but profound change, his behaviour was dramatically altered, within a matter of weeks. I have not had to carry my son unwillingly from another public place since making this change. Even more convincing was how my son and I’s relationship changed. He was frequently telling me he wanted a new mommy and he hated me. Everyone kept telling me “that’s normal.” Well it stopped when I made this change, so he was trying to tell me “I hate the way you are treating me. I hate how this family makes me feel like a failure.” It’s so painful to know I made him feel that way but I take a lot of solace in knowing he doesn’t say it anymore. There is nothing else more convincing than that for me.
Punishments and Threats
“If you don’t stop whining, I’m putting back the cookies.”
Alfie Kohn has done a lot of research on the use of punishments and threats. He devises that “punishment, even if referred to euphemistically as “consequences,” tends to generate anger, defiance, and a desire for revenge. Moreover, it models the use of power rather than reason and ruptures the important relationship between adult and child.” Alfie Kohn. Punishment tends to escalate the anxiety of the situation. If willing compliance is the goal, then punishment will only work if you have officially crossed the threshold into terrifying your child. Confusing fear with respect seems to be a common misconception. Small children can’t really grasp the concept of respect, but fear can be misinterpreted for respect. If your child now sees you and your behaviour towards them as a threat, they may be able to start complying with your requests for certain behaviours, out of fear. Parenting with fear is like trying to tend a garden with a weed whacker and a pressure hose, the garden may get weeded and watered but all the plants will be destroyed in the process. Better to take your time and nurture your child’s emotional intelligence, like you would your garden.
“Research and logic suggest that punishment and rewards are not really opposites, but two sides of the same coin. Both strategies amount to ways of trying to manipulate someone’s behaviour–in one case, prompting the question, “what do they want me to do, and what happens to me if I don’t do it?”, and in the other instance, leading a child to ask, “What do they want me to do, and what do I get for doing it?” Neither strategy helps children to grapple with the question, “What kind of person do I want to be?” Alfie Kohn.
Using empathy and incentives, instead of rewards had a significant positive impact on my family. The pressure we all felt to live up to societal expectations for behaviour was suffocating our relationships. It was so hard for my son to regulate his emotions and behaviour the whole time we were in public. I thought it was good enough that I was giving him lots of chances to succeed by reminding him about the reward, but really every time I gave him one more chance, that was one more chance to fail. He was continually failing which just exacerbated his frustration which obviously impacted his behaviour. I was getting frustrated and feeling like a failure too, which always intensified the situation. Releasing us both from the pressure of having to control his behaviour, and just letting ourselves be, has given us such peace, his behaviour ended up changing on its own.
The behavioural approach, that rewards wanted behaviours and punishes unwanted behaviours, simply focuses on behaviour modification. The responsive parenting approach, which is largely based on attachment theory, focuses on the emotional, social and environmental causes of behaviour. When we acknowledge, and empathize with our child’s emotions, we are fostering self-awareness, emotional intelligence and resiliency. The close relationship we have with our child then acts as a support and it also grows deeper with each chance we have to connect through moments like these. Then the first time your child goes to the grocery store with her friends from her dorm, she will remember how much fun it was to go to the grocery store with her parents when she was a child. The life lessons we teach our children are not supposed to be about obedience and compliance, we are supposed to teach them about emotional intelligence, resiliency, self-regulation (through co-regulation), divergent thinking and kindness. If we teach them these things, all the other information just falls into place because they know who they are, they know what they want, and most importantly, they believe in themselves because they know they have people who believe in them.
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To continue reading about the grocery store example read
Responding to Impatience with Empathy: The Grocery Store Part II
“But I Want IT!”: Holding A Limit in a Responsive Way- The Grocery Store Part III
Responding to a Public Meltdown With Empathy and Compassion: The Grocery Store Part IV
Part II: Responding to Impatience with Empathy, Part III Holding A Limit in a Responsive Way and Part IV: How to Respond to A Public Emotional Outburst With Compassion
fosters trust: Learning To Trust: Transforming Difficult Elementary Classrooms through Developmental Discipline-https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED478653
empathy: The Importance of Empathizing with Children- http://attachmentparenting.org/blog/2012/10/17/importance-empathizing-children/
We don’t really need to fix our children’s problems for them: The Train Analogy that Will Change How You See Your Crying Child-https://pickanytwo.net/the-train-analogy-that-will-change-how-you-see-your-crying-child/
Robin Grille: Rewards and Praise: The Poisoned Carrot- https://www.naturalchild.org/robin_grille/rewards_praise.html
Alfie Kohn: Punitive Damages- https://www.alfiekohn.org/parenting/punishment.htm
Alfie Kohn: The Risks of Rewards- https://www.alfiekohn.org/article/risks-rewards/
behavioural approach: Skinner Operant Conditioning- https://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html
attachment theory: What Does Attachment Look Like?- https://responsiveparentingblog.wordpress.com/2018/07/02/what-does-attachment-look-like/
emotional intelligence: How to Build Emotional Intelligence in Your Child -https://www.huffingtonpost.com/anna-partridge/how-to-build-emotional-intelligence-in-your-child_b_7578640.html
resiliency: Building Resilience in Young Children- https://www.beststart.org/resources/hlthy_chld_dev/pdf/BSRC_Resilience_English_fnl.pdf
self-regulation: Shanker- Self-Reg- https://self-reg.ca/
divergent thinking: Building Your Child’s Divergence- https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/radical-teaching/201404/build-your-child-s-divergence
kindness: Model Graciousness- https://visiblechild.wordpress.com/2015/09/02/model-graciousness/