Parenting without punishments or rewards

Punishing four-year-olds might not be the best way to teach them good behaviour.
Punishing four-year-olds might not be the best way to teach them good behaviour. 

No more punishments or rewards – How to spare the rod without spoiling the child. A guidance approach.

I’d like you to picture this. Your small child is learning to walk. They pull themselves to standing, and take their first wobbly step. They take another step before falling down. You watch this and say, ‘If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times. Just put one foot in front of the other.’

It seems harsh, doesn’t it?

Thankfully it rarely happens that a child is scolded when they are trying to reach one of their physical milestones. However a child who has a tantrum in the supermarket, or is uncooperative when it’s time to leave a friend’s house will often be chastised or punished.

There is a growing body of research that says children’s emotional and social development should be considered in the same way as their physical growth, with the same level of patience and support from parents and caregivers.

It is very difficult for children before the age of four to manage their emotions, and if we punish them for losing control, we are punishing them for being children ...

In much the same way that we don’t punish children when they are learning new physical skills, such as walking for the first time, a guidance approach means that parents teach and help children master all the skills they need, especially the social and emotional ones.

Dr Louise Porter, a child psychologist and author of Children are people too: A parent’s guide to young children’s behaviour says that a guidance approach differs from using rewards and punishments because it “starts from a fundamentally different belief about children.” “Rather than thinking that children are naughty, attention-seeking or out to get you, guidance believes that children, like any of us, are striving to meet their needs.”

The main task that children undertake throughout their early years is learning how to manage their emotions. “Sometimes the behaviour children use to meet a need might not be ideal because they are not very skilled … rather than punishing children for not knowing how to manage their emotions, we simply teach it,” says Dr Porter.

But choosing the right time to teach children how to manage their emotions is crucial. According to Dr Porter the last thing that children need when they are in the middle of a tantrum or a meltdown is to be told what they should be doing instead. “If we’ve told the child twice what needs to happen then the child knows. We know this because if we told them twice where we’d hidden some chocolate biscuits they’d remember. So they know the facts, but they can’t control themselves to perform the behaviour,” Dr Porter says.

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The best thing to do is to help them calm down. This may be with a hug and the reassurance that ‘I’m here until you feel better.’ While some parents might feel that this is reinforcing ‘bad behaviour’, Early Childhood teacher Linda Saunders says, “It’s not that they are being naughty or that you are letting them get away with anything. You have to help them manage their feelings.”

Saunders says that when children “don’t get what they want, they have feelings of anger, frustration or disappointment, but that is life. It is our job to help them learn that these feelings are real but that they can deal with them and move on. These opportunities for learning seem minor now but help build children’s resilience for their future emotional wellbeing.”

Two of the strategies that Dr Porter regularly uses to calm and support children are time in and time away.

Time in is what we do with a hysterical baby. We give her a hug, we soothe her, we tell her it’s going to be okay and we ride the wave of emotion. We don’t talk about whatever triggered it.”

If parents first soothe a child to help them get back in control, the child will, in time, learn to go from a baby-state where every emotion is felt and expressed to an adult state of being able to decide how to respond to their feelings. And as children get more practice at regulating their emotions, they need less support to do this from the adults around them. This is a fundamental difference from the system of rewards and punishment. “With rewards and punishments, you have to keep it up,” says Dr Porter.

For older children Dr Porter says time away is helpful. Time away is what adults tend to do when they are upset. “We do something relaxing, we read a book, go for a run, we have a rest, we watch the telly,” says Dr Porter. “But what we don’t do is we don’t sit ourselves on a chair in the laundry facing the wall.” Whilst time away may look similar to time out, the message behind it is, “Sweetheart, you look like you’re feeling really rotten, how about you go and do something fun in your room until you feel better?” says Dr Porter.

Dr Porter says parents asking, “What’s your objection?” and “How could we fix that?” can diffuse many situations with older children. If the child’s answer is not something parents are prepared to allow, they can say, “that’s not something that I can do, what can we try instead?” says Dr Porter.

Parents using a guidance approach tend to talk lots to their children and this raises children’s verbal IQ according to Dr Porter. Research has also shown that when compared to the guidance approach, using rewards and punishments “produces children who are more aggressive, have lower self esteem, less able to manage their emotions and impulses, less altruistic, and much more competitive,” says Dr Porter. “Punishment offers retribution for past misdeeds, whereas guidance aims to teach children skills in order to prevent future ones.”

It is rare for children to make mistakes because they don’t know how they should be behaving. More common is for children to make mistakes and have tantrums because they are lacking self-control. It is very difficult for children before the age of four to manage their emotions, and if we punish them for losing control, says Dr Porter “we are punishing them for being children.”