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A parent's guide to reward and punishment



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.

Chris Johnston cartoonTake 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 to. Fear keeps pace with hope ... Both are mainly due to projecting our thoughts far ahead of us instead of adapting ourselves to the present.'


"When surveyed, the progeny did prefer the time to eat and dress in a calm manner before being transported into another school day."


Would you rather be fed or struck — which motivator is more effective? Pass me the carrot any day. Many parenting theorists postulate the necessary joint use of reward and punishment, as the stick 'doesn't usually work by itself [and is] best combined with more positive strategies'. Still, negative reinforcement has generally been seen by behaviouralists as the more powerful motivator, with 'loss aversion' being seen as the making of champions.

I know that my annoyed, sleepy growling to 'Geddowdovbed!' (as with the removal of blankets and doonas, and even the occasional carriage of said sleeping children to the table) is not the most relaxing way for the day to start, for me or the kids. But sometimes it works when sweet, kind words do not.

The Scientific American, while recognising the popular belief that humans beings 'are more motivated by our fears than by our aspirations', recently published research asserting that 'there is no general cognitive bias that leads people to avoid losses more vigorously than to pursue gains'. 'People do not rate the pain of losing $10 to be more intense than the pleasure of gaining $10. People do not report their favorite [sic] sports team losing a game will be more impactful than their favourite sports team winning a game. And people are not particularly likely to sell a stock they believe has even odds of going up or down in price.'

On the same lines, would an extra half-hour or hour in bed be preferred to the eating of breakfast and the measured preparations before hurling headlong into a school day? When surveyed, the progeny did prefer the time to eat and dress in a calm manner before being transported into another school day.

Guided by life experience and philosophical preference, I prefer to proffer rewards to my kids, rather than imitate a berserker or issue warnings of dire, non-breakfasted consequences.

While we all need some level of stress to spur us on, and while societal boundaries are sometimes delineated by punitive consequences, it's the hope that life can get better — be kinder, more compassionate and more fulfilling — that gets me out of bed. Wish I could say the same for the kids.



Barry GittinsBarry Gittins is a Melbourne writer.


Topic tags: Barry Gittins, parenting, reward, punishment, Winston Churchill, Seneca



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Existing comments

Some years ago, someone who should know such things, told me that I struck her as someone who 'liked to take things easy'. So, I can relate to your children, Barry. Sleeping-in, loafing and daydreaming should never be mistaken for wasting time. Perhaps your children may not rise to the top of the corporate ladder, however relaxed and hopeful children give wonderful hugs. And eat their carrots.

Pam | 20 September 2018  

No carrots. No sticks. Togetherness.

john frawley | 20 September 2018  

Loved it. A difficult time getting those kids, teenagers, young adults, maybe not so young adults, out of bed in the morning. What a great way to wake up. Thanks

dennis mcintosh | 21 September 2018  

The most successful way to get a child out of bed in my experience, was to lift the dog onto their bed. No words need be spoken and the dog, with very little face licking, will get the child awake and up pretty quickly, not only that, the laughter and a happy mood is the well worthwhile result. It's a win win.

Jane | 21 September 2018  

Wonderful! A modest but important consolation - you know where they are, safe and well.....

Grahame Petersen | 21 September 2018  

I semi-solved that problem, by not having heaters in the bedroom and one wall heater in the family room. Result scramble to be out of bed first to cook body and clothes near the heater. Get dressed and move on. The children all loved it and happy noise started my day.

Gabrielle | 21 September 2018  

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