When Disciplining Children, Offer a Carrot, Not the Stick
Every parent wants one of those perfectly behaved, polite children with impeccable table manners, no propensity for whiny voices, an inability to tantrum, and an adult’s capacity for emotional regulation. In that make-believe world, disciplining children occurs through magical fairy dust that, if sprinkled effectively, will give them structure, a sense of right and wrong, manners, academic rigor, and inside voices.
We swear we’ve seen this work. In a movie.
In real life, parenting toddlers (and children of all ages) is harder work. Teaching your toddler to listen to you and change her behaviour is not complicated, but it’s definitely effortful. Like it or not, small children respond far more quickly to proverbial carrots than sticks.
In a hurry? Skip to the end for a cheat sheet!
Child behaviour is much like that of adults: Humans are hard-wired to be motivated by reward and incentive, rather than fear of punishment. This phenomenon has been studied endlessly, and guess what: It applies regardless of age.
The underlying premise, studied in depth and propagated by Dr. Alan Kazdin, psychologist and director of the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic, goes something like this: You cannot achieve long-term behavioural change through punishment; the only way to change behaviour you don’t like is through a series of rewards and incentives for the behaviour you do like and want to see increase.
Punishment can get you short-term results – it may get your son to stop throwing his toys, or scare your daughter mid-tantrum – but it won’t prevent the bad behaviour from recurring in the future. If you want to know how to get kids to listen in a way that ensures the bad behaviour never even starts, the answer is: Praise them when they do the opposite thing, i.e., the positive behaviour you want to see more of. (Kazdin calls this praising the “positive opposite.” It’s a specific technique of positive reinforcement, or, positive discipline.)
We’ve written before about how children crave your attention and validation, and how any attention you bestow upon their actions will only spur them to repeat the behaviour. ‘Bad’ behaviour is no exception; if you turn your attention to your child every time he does something – even scream like a rabid banshee – he now knows how to get your attention. The best way of disciplining children for behaviour you don’t want to see is to ignore it, completely; then, systematically, start praising the positive opposite. This begins the cycle of reward for behaviour you like and want to see more of.
Let’s be clear: We are not advocating bribery. Telling your child “If you eat your vegetables, I’ll let you watch TV,” is not the way to get what you want. (In fact, that may only introduce a new set of problems, as your child learns you can be manipulated into breaking your own rules.)
Rather, disciplining children through rewards is about praising your child when he actually exhibits – of his own volition – the behaviour you want to see more of. In this way, you are subtly incentivizing him to behave that way more frequently. You are not starting an endless cycle of tit-for-tat.
Your cheat sheet for disciplining children through rewards
Ignore whatever behaviour you don’t like.
Whether it’s whining, grabbing, carrying food all over the house, just stay zen. (The only exception, of course, is any behaviour that poses a direct physical danger to the child or someone else.)
Heap oodles of attention on all behaviour you approve of.
Whether it’s putting the peepee in the potty, eating with a fork, or tidying up the toys make that one small action all you can talk about.
Kids love songs and funny voices. Making up a silly teeth-brushing dance, complete with funny faces and a goofy voice, can be a reward that goes just as far as a favourite dessert or new toy.
Figure out what “rewards” mean to your family.
For most children, the best reward is your engagement and attention. But you can also try sticker charts that lead to special activities, like a trip to the aquarium. (You might be surprised by how much motivation a few stickers can garner, even without a big payoff.)
Don’t lose your temper, threaten or hit.
These tactics just aren’t going to get you the result you want. The Screaming Daddy Monster might feel good in the moment, but it is the biggest spotlight your child has ever been in, and they’re going to remember that’s how to get attention. Also, threats don’t work. And hitting only teaches your child that’s how they should respond to behaviour they don’t like.
Don’t be hard on yourself.
Human psychology has shown us that it is our natural instinct to focus on negative rather than positive occurrences, but none of us have perfect command of our moods at all times. Rather than beat yourself up about the times you’ve failed to encourage good behaviour, take comfort in the knowledge that you can always turn things around with some of these simple concepts. They take time and effort, but they do affect change.