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Parenting: Using Rewards and Punishments

Parenting can be a personal and a touchy subject. Many parents would do anything to help their children, and there are few things more painful than the thought that their parenting may have been less than perfect. But here's the truth: Every parent can improve. The ones sitting in front of a therapist may just be the ones with the most difficult children, or the ones who were brave enough to ask for help. A parent visiting a therapist is not an indication of failure.

This guide will cover the best practices for several common parenting techniques. When counseling, an emphasis should be placed on the parents' consistency and their adherence to the techniques. In some cases, a small oversight can cause a strategy to be totally ineffective.

Most of the advice in this guide—unless noted otherwise—is effective for teenagers as well as younger children. Of course, parents and their therapists should use their best judgment to adjust their actions according to their child's level of development.

The Challenges of Parent Training

"I've tried that."

Before asking for help, most parents have tried it all. They've tried rewards, and they've tried punishments. They've been more strict, and they've been less strict. It didn't help. Visiting a therapist is usually the last resort.

As a therapist, it's important to take special care listening to what a parent has tried, what has worked, and what hasn't worked. If you jump in with strategies that the parent feels they have already attempted, your wisdom will fall on deaf ears, and you will lose credibility.

That being said, the challenges of parenthood are often the result of how a plan is implemented, and not the plan itself. For example: Rewards, when used correctly, are very effective. Rewards that aren't well implemented are useless.

Because of this, you may be tasked with motivating a parent to try something a second time, with only small changes. You know that the adjustments make all the difference, but if you haven't adequately listened to the parent, they probably won't trust you. If a parent doesn't believe you understand the situation, they won't be motivated to implement your adjustments.

Regaining Trust

Parents who have lost the trust of their children by not following through with rewards or punishments are in for a struggle. These cases are difficult, but not impossible. Special effort will need to be made to rebuild trust, and to have a parent show their children that they are serious.

These parents should be advised that it might take time for interventions to work, and sometimes their child's behavior will get worse before it gets better. Children in these situations might test their parents' willingness to use punishments, and they may not believe that promised rewards are real.

For families with older children and teenagers, it'll be difficult to make progress without having them present in session. It will be especially valuable to have family sessions that involve everyone.

Rewards

This guide covers rewards before punishments for a reason. Generally, rewards will do more to improve a child's behavior than punishments. In this section we describe how to use a token economy, which is a common reward system. We've also compiled a list of best practices when it comes to using rewards, which can be used with or without a token economy.

Creating a Token Economy

Even if you don't think you've ever heard of a "token economy", you have. Our society runs off of a type of token economy called currency. In a token economy a parent will give their child points for good behavior, which can later be exchanged for rewards.

The huge advantage of a token economy is that rewards can be easily given at any time (e.g. "I'll give you three points if you help me in the garden for one hour"). If implemented correctly, this will allow children to receive immediate gratification for good behavior.

As we'll discuss later in the Using Rewards Effectively section, frequent small rewards are more effective than infrequent large rewards. A token economy will allow you to provide frequent small rewards (points) that also allow your child to work toward something bigger that they're really excited about.

There are a few things that need to happen to develop an effective token economy. Your child should want to participate. This means it should be easy to understand, fun, and rewarding. Oh, and come up with a new name for the system ("Token Economy" sounds like some horrible homework assignment).

First of all, keep the system as simple as possible. Give out points and record them somewhere visible to your child, and they exchange them for rewards. It's a good idea to have consistent daily goals, such as 1 point for doing the dishes, and 1 point for having a clean room at bedtime. Don't get complicated, or it'll become too much of a chore.

For young children, you can make the system more fun by using stickers to record points. A simple sheet of star stickers will really add to the allure. Therapists: It may be helpful to give parents a chart and some stickers to help them get started.

When you start the token economy, speak with your child to come up with a list of rewards and their point cost. Rewards should not be impossible to achieve, but be careful to not dig yourself into a hole with rewards that are too expensive, or too easy to achieve. Come up with some small rewards (10 points to stay up later on a weekend), and some that are bigger (100 points for a new toy). The ideal system will allow your child to get a frequent small reward, while saving a few points to work toward something bigger.

Your token economy will be as powerful as you make it. If you take the system seriously, you give out points, and you follow through with rewards, your child will get involved. If they honestly believe this is an opportunity to get what they want, they aren't going to pass it up.

Using Rewards Effectively

The following tips for using rewards effectively are appropriate for children and teenagers of all ages (and honestly, for adults too). You can download a printable version of the tips here:

    How to Use Rewards Effectively
  • Rewards must be desired. A new pair of shoes isn't a good reward if your child doesn't care about shoes.
  • Don't set unrealistic goals. If your child feels that they cannot achieve their goal, they won't try. A general rule of thumb is that your child should be able to earn their reward about 75% of the time.
  • Rewards should be given regularly and consistently. Instead of offering one big reward for straight A's, try offering smaller rewards for each completed homework assignment. Children can't plan for the future in the same way adults do, and a report card that's three months away might as well not exist.
  • Always follow through. If you promise a reward, and don't follow through, you've just made your life much more difficult. Next time you promise a reward, your child won't believe you. Why should they? That being said, this goes both ways. If your child doesn't earn the reward, they don't get it!
  • Be clear about the requirements to receive a reward. It's likely that your idea of a clean room is different than your child's idea of a clean room. Be specific, like this: "If you pick your clothes up off of the floor and put them in the dresser, vacuum, and make your bed, we will go to a movie."
  • Be clear about the reward itself. If you say: "I will buy you a new pair of shoes if you study for at least one hour every day this week", your child will be in for a sad realization when they try to pick up a $200 pair of sneakers, and you tell them no. Be clear about any limitations on the reward from the start.
  • Don't take away rewards that have already been earned. If your child earns a trip to the movies, and then they get in trouble for something unrelated, don't take away the reward. You can still use punishment, but it should be separate. Taking away rewards can lead to a constant sense of defeat when a child works hard, yet never sees positive outcomes.
  • Try rewarding good habits instead of good outcomes. For example, reward your child if they study for an hour each night, instead of rewarding them for an A on a test.

Punishments

Like rewards, there's a right way and a wrong way to use punishments. If used incorrectly, punishments will cause bad behaviors to become even worse. If punishments have not been used consistently in the past, the sudden implementation may also result in a temporary worsening of behavior as children test limits, and challenge their parents.

In this section we discuss how time-outs can be used with younger children, and then we provide a list of best practices for punishments which can be used with all ages.

Time-Outs

For younger children, time-outs are usually enough of a consequence to manage unwanted behavior. Follow these instructions for a good chance at success.

    Instructions: Using Time-Outs Effectively
  1. Decide on a location for time-outs. This should be a place where you can easily monitor your child and make sure they're distraction free (no phones, games, or toys). A chair or mat in the corner will usually be perfect. Never send your child to their room full of toys and games—this is more of a reward than a punishment!
  2. If your child breaks a rule, send them to time-out immediately. Children won't connect their bad behavior from an hour ago to the time-out they are experiencing now.
  3. Tell your child why they are going to time-out in two sentences or less, and leave it at that. Anything longer than two sentences, and it will be forgotten. For example: "I asked you to turn off the TV after your show finished, and you didn't. Go to time-out for 5 minutes." Done.
  4. Set a timer so you and your child know exactly when the time-out ends. Time-outs should last 1 minute for each year of age. So, a 2-year-old will be in time-out for 2 minutes, a 5-year-old for 5 minutes, and so on.
  5. After the timer rings, move on. Have a brief conversation with your child, let them know they did a good job completing their time-out, and be done with it. Your child has earned a clean slate.

Using Punishments Effectively

You can download a printable version of the tips here:

    How to Use Punishments Effectively
  • Create a few simple and clearly defined rules and punishments. Children will have a hard time understanding a long or complex list of rules, and there's no chance for success if they don't know what the rules are.
  • Always follow through. The threat of punishment will quickly become meaningless if the punishments never actually happen. It's easy to feel sympathetic and let your kid off the hook, but this is when you need to put your foot down.
  • Don't overdo it. Many parents have a habit of blurting out extreme punishments when they're upset. Grounding your child for a month is as much a punishment to you as it is to your child. After a few days, most parents have cooled down, and they're tired of having a bored kid around the house, so they end the punishment early. This tells your child that you don't really mean it when you threaten punishments.
  • Don't overdo it (seriously). If you ground a child for a month, or take away everything they care about, your child will have little motivation to be good. To a child, a month seems like an eternity. Why should they do their homework if they're grounded "forever" anyway? You've just given up all of your leverage.
  • Never use corporal punishment, not even spanking. Hitting your child might get you what you want now, but it will cause trouble later on. Children who receive corporal punishment learn that hitting and violence are appropriate responses to their problems, and they tend to be more aggressive with other children, and during adulthood.
  • Take away privileges. Removing TV or phone privileges can be very effective.
  • Never use emotionally painful punishments such as humiliation. Shaming and humiliating children can irreparably damage your relationship and cause significant distress that results in long-term consequences.
  • Don't take away something that's good. If your child calms down by playing guitar, don't take away their guitar when they are angry. If your child is motivated to get good grades so they can play on their school basketball team, don't take away basketball.
  • Don't punish out of anger. If you're upset, tell your child you need a few hours to think about their punishment. The goal of a punishment isn't to make you feel better—it's to help your child learn a lesson. You should be in a calm and rational state of mind. If you're screaming, you should walk away!
  • Talk to your child about why they are being punished, and help them come up with strategies to not make the same mistake again. Punishments won't do much good if your child doesn't learn from the experience. So they forgot to do their chores—how can they remember next time?

Other Parenting Advice

  • Don't underestimate the power of a smile or a "good job". Whether they admit it or not, most children want the approval of their parents. Sometimes these little rewards can be more powerful than anything else.
  • Choose your battles. So, your child has picked the clothes up off the floor, and put them in the dresser, but the clothes aren't folded neatly. Let it go! Ask yourself: "Is this problem really that important right now?"
  • Try to catch your child being good. Is your hyper child sitting still? Let them know that you notice! Make a goal of catching your child being good (no matter how minor it seems) at least three times a day. The best way to end a bad behavior is to reward the opposite good behavior.
  • Praise behaviors instead of traits. For example, if your child gets a good grade, praise their hard work instead of their intelligence. If your child believes they passed a test because of their intelligence, what does it mean when they fail a test? Also, praising a behavior such as hard work will lead to more hard work, but traits like intelligence are outside of your child's control.
  • Be fair. You want your child to do the dishes, and they want to play a video game. Instead of telling them to wash the dishes "right now", give them a reasonable time frame. Try this: "I need you to finish washing the dishes within the next hour". How would you feel if you were watching your favorite show, and your partner demanded you do the laundry "right now"?
  • Be specific about your praise. If your child is working hard on homework, say, "I like how well you are focusing." If your child does the dishes on their own, say, "Thank you for helping with chores today."
  • In some cases, it's better to ignore bad behavior than to punish it. Oftentimes bad attention is better than no attention, and children know that they are noticed when they are irritating. In other words, taking the time to talk with and punish your child can be interpreted as a reward in these situations. If your child's behavior isn't dangerous or destructive, and you think they're just trying to get your attention, ignore them until they stop.

Other Resources

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