Child Discipline: It's Time To Rethink Reward Systems

We need to take a serious look at the sticker chart systems that have taken hold in this country. Just because they are mainstream doesn’t mean they are sound child guidance practices. Even if recommended by your child’s doctor or teacher, please know that there is little education given to doctors or teachers in the area of discipline.

Let's take a quick glance back to provide some perspective on why we've come to embrace reward systems.

Frightened Into Obedience

Historically, we have parented our children using an autocratic approach. That meant that if our child misbehaved or didn’t listen, we frightened them into obedience by the use of punishments.

But in the last few decades, we have amassed definitive research findings that confirm again and again that punitive tactics are harmful to children, leading to emotional, psychological and relationship issues. Experts recommended against punishment.

So what were parents supposed to do to keep their kids in line if they were no longer allowed to spank or yell? Parents were desperate for alternatives. They certainly didn’t want to damage their children; they just wanted them to behave!

From Punishments To Rewards

Imagine the excitement parents felt when B.F. Skinner came along from Harvard University introducing "operant conditioning" in the 1960s and 70s. Instead of using sticks to hit kids, we could use carrots to lure them into the behaviours we wanted. That felt so much more respectful.

Everyone jumped on board. Schools introduced sticker charts and other creative behavioural systems like the now popular “traffic light" system: Teachers give a green sticker for good behaviour, yellow for neutral and red light sticker for bad behaviour.

These are basic forms of behaviour modification. If you read the premise of this approach you see that it dismisses the fact that children have thoughts and feelings. Accepting that humans are emotional and cognitive in nature seems like something I shouldn't have to defend in 2015.

Sticker Charts = Control

The use of tokens, rewards and stickers only serve to reinforce to the child that they are under the control and power of those doling out the prizes. Children find themselves in circumstances where they are subordinates being controlled. I can tell you as a psychotherapist and mental health professional that subordination and control are NEVER healthy in human relationships at any age.

The work I do with schools, families and children is to help them learn about the ways to encourage children to act in pro-social ways through winning the child’s co-operation instead of forcing their compliance. I help adults see the underlying beliefs of the child, so we can better understand their internal psychic maps and help correct any mistaken cognitions that lead to behaviours that are not helpful to others.

All misbehaving children are discouraged children, and being monitored with a sticker chart adds more discouragement still. It’s a vote of non-confidence from adults that says indirectly to the child, “You would not act appropriately unless you were bribed or enticed.”

Co-operation, Not Compliance

The methods I recommend — which are based on my training in Adlerian psychology — bring about changes in behaviour because they stimulate intrinsic motivation from the child. I show teachers and parents ways to bring about co-operative behaviour by creating the conditions that inspire children to want to be helpful to others; feelings of belonging and mutual respect. Yes, it takes longer and is more complicated, but what is more worthy of our time than raising the next generation?

I hope you are as intrigued with these concepts as I am. As the HuffPost Canada Parents expert, I will continue to share methods and techniques to help you establish new parenting practices through this column. Be sure to watch the video above to find out what can be used to replace the sticker charts.


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