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Punishment & Praise: natural consequences or unintended harm?

Punishment and praise have been the subject of much debate in parenting circles lately. There is a new trend in parenting which focuses on building the emotional intelligence of children and this contradicts the traditional theory of using punitive measures or evaluative statements to control children’s behavior.

One leading expert in the field of human behavior and education is Alfie Kohn. He recently published an article in the New York Times, When a Parent’s ‘I Love You’ Means 'Do as I Say’, that challenges the traditional thinking served up by conditional parenting experts.

Masked and marketed as ‘positive discipline’ this type of parenting is often laden with “natural” or “logical” consequences or pronouncements of flattery confounded with an assessment of behavior.

Mainstream parenting experts like Rabbi Shmuley and Supernanny, who advocate a no-nonsense approach, advise praising the child who displays good behavior. Dr. Phil McGraw in his book “Family First” (Free Press, 2004) counsels that “one of the most powerful currencies for a child is the parents’ acceptance and approval.”

But does this give parents license to dangle their love like a carrot?

Should children be expected to perform favorably in order to earn parental love or should love and acceptance be given unconditionally as a reminder of the cherished bond between parent and child?

Punishment seems like a logical remedy for apparent misbehavior but punishment fails to further a secure connection between parent and child. It may indeed stop behavior in the moment but at what risk to the relationship with your child?

On the opposite end of the control continuum is positive reinforcement which has been touted as a superior parenting tool. In essence, when your child does something you like, you tell them how wonderful they are, effectively expecting this to produce more of the same behavior.

But neither punishment nor praise offers an opportunity to teach appropriate behaviors, set limits or connect with your children. In actuality, these techniques miss the value of modeling in favor of control and judgment, fail to set limits by inducing more stress and fear in a child - whether by forcing compliance or by the threat of not living up to perceived expectations - and disconnect you from your children through forms of love withdrawal and isolation.

The danger does not lie in the punishments, evaluations or incentives themselves, which may be relatively harmless depending on how often they are used, but in the message they send and how they affect parents' ability to enjoy an intimate relationship their children.

So why have these methods been promoted for so long?

Parents and experts have misperceived the effects of punishment as being the result of consequences. But with the threat of a consequence you dismiss the child's needs and feelings and make your love conditional. The message that your child hears is 'he is only acceptable once he behaves as requested and his feelings do not necessarily matter.' What changes his behavior is not the threat of "no TV, friends, freedom or food" but the fear of the loss of parental love, acceptance and approval.

Consequences also ignore the underlying cause of behavior which is ultimately communication and deny the child an opportunity to feel heard, name his feelings, express them without judgment and find new ways of interacting that are more acceptable.

Praise while seemingly less destructive is still a measurement of your child's conduct and actions.

“In 2004, two Israeli researchers, Avi Assor and Guy Roth, joined Edward L. Deci, a leading American expert on the psychology of motivation, in asking more than 100 college students whether the love they had received from their parents had seemed to depend on whether they had succeeded in school, practiced hard for sports, been considerate toward others or suppressed emotions like anger and fear.”

The study found that students who were conditionally parented, though they were more likely to oblige their parents wishes, tended to resent or dislike their parents more. It also supported previous findings that children who are overly praised or rewarded come to depend on that praise for their own internal motivation and when the praise (external motivation) stops coming - their internal motivation to accomplish things without a reward suffers.

So while punishment may secure parents short-lived obedience, what it does in the long run is create a rift in our relationship with our kids. Punitive measures and the over-use of compliments can cause unnerving expectations and build emotional walls to connection and open communication which cause children to act out of fear rather than because they have developed a sound moral compass.

Obviously not all praise is harmful and you may think that not all punishments are damaging but evidence to support a shift in thinking about children and parenting is mounting and reinforcing the new paradigm belief about how children deserve to be treated.

Lori Petro is a Mom, Children's Advocate and Speaker. She is passionate about transforming our world through conscious parenting compassionate communication, and peaceful conflict resolution.

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