When I tried to stop using reward and punishments, my son totally ignored most things I asked him to do. I was SO frustrated, and couldn’t figure out why the strategies I was learning in books weren’t working. I now know that I hadn’t yet learned the other skills I needed for making the transition to influencing through connection.
In the meantime, when he wouldn’t cooperate and I was at the end of my rope, I was still slipping into using an occasional reward or mild threat. I’d read the research, but because I couldn’t figure it out, I told myself that it couldn’t be that harmful.
Was I ever wrong! And when my son lost all motivation to go to school (and a few other things as well) at around age 10, I needed to take a much closer look at what was going on.
What’s the Harm?
Until a few years ago, we didn’t fully understand how damaging punishments and rewards are to our children. We now know that they can contribute to:
- Insecure attachment (affecting future relationships)
- Less resilient nervous system wiring (anxiety, fear)—sometimes leading to substance use or addiction as coping strategies for the anxiety and insecurity
- Decreased intrinsic motivation,
- Poor self-esteem,
and they reduce a child’s very life force energy, contributing to depression, low energy, chronic illness. They can also lead to a tendency toward violence in some situations (your child might be aggressive towards others, or, be more likely to be targeted aggressively by other kids.
So, while obedience and good behaviour may calm your parent anxiety and get your short-term goals accomplished, there’s a big long-term cost.
Now we know. But the truth is, for most of us it’s way harder to change than it seems. Have you ever told yourself you wouldn’t use punishments, threats (even mild) or rewards again, only to find yourself in a stressful situation where you couldn’t get your child to do what needed to be done?
Rewards and punishments are still rampant because parents and teachers are caught between wanting the “good behaviour” that helps them feel assured they’re doing a good job of teaching their child what s/he needs to know to be successful in life, and not knowing how to accomplish that without using rewards or punishment. (And creating “consequences” has the same effect as punishing.)
Here are some key tips to make change:
- Connection is key. When your child isn’t cooperating are escalating, connect to yourself first. Feel your feet on the ground, notice your surroundings. If irritation or anxiety are coming up for you, feel those in your body, and at the same time, look around and notice that you’re safe. Come fully into the present moment.
- Remember that the belief that children have “learned” something after being told once or twice is a myth. We took on that belief back in the days when punishment was considered okay. It’s not surprising that a child would be obedient after being told once if they’ve also been threatened with punishment (or withdrawal of privilege/fun) for disobeying. That doesn’t mean it “works”. That means you’ve created enough fear that the child will shut down and ignore his own child needs to meet your need. The costs to your child and relationship are huge, as listed above.
- How can you connect with your child in this moment? Start by looking into his eyes, or noticing what he’s engaged in that’s keeping him from coming alongside of you and your plan. Ask him about it. See if you can lighten the situation with your tone of voice, or making a little game out of doing what’s needed.
- Get curious about what your child needs in that moment.
- Above all, be gentle with yourself when you have a moment of slipping into an old habit. Anything you’ve done in the past is reparable through connection. And if you weren’t parented in a connected way, it takes time to change your nervous system wiring and habits as well. Every time you have a small success, you’re changing your parent-child relationship and your child’s well-being for the future.
I’ve found that learning the skills to influence my son through connection have been life-changing for my relationship with my him. We’re closer, and although we don’t always agree, we have an honest and mutually respectful relationship. He’s 16 now, and I’ve been studying this and creating strategies for this since he was a toddler.
In the bigger picture, when we parent by connecting instead of coercing, we are changing the world for the better, one human at a time. Our world needs more connected, open-hearted human beings.
If you’re having trouble making the transition to influencing your child through connection, and you think you might benefit from some strategies for this, I offer free 30 minute sessions in which we can discover whether my offerings might be a fit to support you.
Blessings to you on your parenting journey.