How to Raise Children Without Punishment and Reward (Unconditional Parenting)
A while ago I witnessed a discussion between a mother of a small child, and an older woman whom I assumed was the child's grandmother.The girl, a vibrant two-year-old, out of all the fun activities you can do in a playground, chose to throw sand in the air to let it rain down on her.
The older woman told the child "not to play with the sand, dear, it's messing up your hair." The mother disagreed. "Just let her play with the sand," she said, "I will wash it out later." Grandma was persistent though and said, "No, she must learn to do as she's told. Or she'll never learn." This made me think. Do I want my children to always do as they're told?
And I imagined that girl, twenty-five years later, sitting in an office and following the directions her boss was giving her. I imagined her being promoted, because she so carefully did so.Then I imagined her boss demanding her to do inappriopriate things, things she didn't feel comfortable with doing. But she did so, anyway, because she learned to do as she was told. Or she either wouldn't get the reward (promotion), or she would be punished (dismissed).
Rewarding and punishing
There are a lot of books promoting the concept of punishment and reward. While the past years the focus has become more prominent on the "reward" part, they are essentially two sides of the same coin. This theory by B.F. Skinner is called operant conditioning. He stated that when behavior is followed by positive reinforcement, both animals and humans are likely to repeat this behavior. Whereas the behavior would recede when behavior was punished. He tested his theory on rat in a box, using electrical pulses as punishment and food as reward.
Now this theory makes perfect sense, right? If I would stand behind you right now with a gun and told you to make me a sandwich, there's a big chance you'd make me one. And if I would do it over, and over again, every day of the year, maybe after a year I wouldn't even need a gun.
So, what's the downside?
There are multiple things you should consider when trying to raise your child:
- What's the kind of adult you want him/her to become? Most of us would probably answer this question with adverbs like "happy", "resilient", "independent", "creative", "respectful" and "loving". Rarely parents use words like "submissive", "quiet" or even "fearful''. Yet, when using operant conditioning, the latter is most likely the outcome of our efforts.
- How do we want our children to feel about us? While we might usually have their best interest at heart, our children are still developing their abilities to empathize and are not mind-readers. So when we keep putting our children away on time-outs, telling them they can't have things they want unless they do what we say and playing the Boogieman, we are essentially sending them the message "I do not love you right now". And that's going to be the main focus for your child at that moment, this unloved and powerless feeling. It will probably worsen the problem even further, as they will not think about the problem itself but on "how can I win my caregivers love back as soon as possible?"
- Are you training a pet or raising a human? The equation might seem laughable, still it's something we have to keep in mind. The effects of operant conditioning are effective on short-term and mostly in pretty specific situations. Like dogs who sit down to wait before crossing over a street, eagerly eyeing the cookie in your hand. They don't know why they sit there, that it's for their own safety and probably will just run the streets when they get a chance to roam free. Your children will need to learn how the world works. They need to know why you do the things you do.
According to Mr. Kohn we need to take a second look at our parenting techniques. Instead of a set of rules, his parenting advice hands you a vision that you can use to find your own way.
But what exactly does this vision entail?
- Don't deal with love. Rather than using love as a trade-object, it should be something that is there by default and without conditions. The relationship we develop with them will be an example for any future bonds and will teach them what it means to be close to someone.
- To limit limits. Exploration is the key to foster their independence. When their exploration is as free as possible and at their own pace, it will give a boost to their self-esteem and help them become assertive and autonomous adults.
- Intrinsic motivation. Raising a child is not a game of control. We cannot control everything that is going to happen in their lives and that is okay. Because they have the motivation to ''do stuff'', already there. They see us walk, they get up and try their first wobbly steps. They see us talk, and they want to join in the conversation. Our need to add external motivation through rewarding/punishing may even decrease their intrinsic motivation. And if intrinsic motivation and external reinforcement collide this can lead to unpleasant games of power.
Alfie Kohn on Rewarding
Are you inspired by the theory of Alfie Kohn?
The theory of Unconditional Parenting is discussed in many books. If you want to learn more about the subject, these books will offer you various studies to prove the positive effects of this parenting style.