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A parent's guide to reward and punishment

  • 20 September 2018


What motivates you? What force compels you to rise and shine, making your morning appearance at the dining room table, or breakfast bar? While seemingly inane, that question marks your life. If you are a fellow parent, I suggest your choice of coercion or of celebration will have a lasting positive or negative impact upon your kids and your family.

Take this not-so-hypothetical situation: You have slumbering children in their bedrooms. You needs must inspire them to gird their loins, be abluted, dressed, fed, prepared and packed before they head for their school days. But the ducted heating, newly revved up, is yet to come to full effect. Breakfast is served to empty places, juice undrunk, as your children cling to the arms of Morpheus.

How best to extract them, then, from their warm, cozy dens? Whispering endearments and professions of fatherly love does not produce the desired results. Nor does opening curtains (to greet the still-dark morn), turning on the lights, singing annoying songs, turning on a television or radio, or serenading them on a tuba. These strategies have all been unsuccessfully trialled.

Stating the time required to reach educational institutions doesn't motivate their emergence, nor does politely requesting the pleasure of their company. There are times, I confess, mid-Melbourne's wintry blasts, that I'm tempted to fill a few buckets of water. Or install a firehose.

For many of us, the prime force spurring us towards thought and action is binary; either reward or punishment. Positive outcomes/optimism, or negative outcomes/pessimism: which is the most effective driver; which promises more for the whole person? When realised, fear, as the sage Yoda tell us, leads to anger, hate and suffering, while hope, realised, can lead to joy. (Admittedly, there are a lot of ostensibly happy people who wouldn't necessarily be portrayed as 'productive'.)

The primal image of 'carrot or stick' was popularised by a quip from Winston Churchill. In 1938 he wrote of the strategies of punishment and reward, 'every device from the stick to the carrot', being used to force 'the emaciated Austrian donkey [to] pull the Nazi barrow up an ever-steepening hill'. (Students of history note how quickly the Nazi barrow gained momentum thereafter.)

Certainly the ancients believed we inevitably experienced both fear and hope, propelling us forward in uncertain times. Rome's Seneca wrote that fear and hope, 'widely different though they are, march in unison like a prisoner and the escort he is handcuffed