What is referred to in this article as Rewards and Punishment are what Legitimate Leadership would see as “Sticks” and “Carrots”. Both Sticks and Carrots are conditional – they are a give-to-get and have inevitable consequences at work and at home. Sticks induce resistance while Carrots lead to counter-manipulation or retaliation. They get movement but not willingness. We totally agree with the author’s comments on this. However, at Legitimate Leadership we see Reward/Punishment/Discipline as different to Sticks and Carrots. They are unconditional and are about unconditional giving. Punishment is about unconditional justice while Reward is about unconditional generosity. Carrots and Sticks bring out the worst in human beings while appropriate Punishment and Reward enable people to be the best that they can be.
OUR SUMMARY OF THIS ARTICLE: Rewards and Punishments are conditional, but our love and positive regard for our kids should be unconditional. Here’s how to change the conversation and the behavior.
“I feel a sense of dread as bedtime rolls around. Here we go again.” A parent often says this, feeling frustrated and stumped at the anticipated ignoring of parents’ directions and melt-down at the mention of pajamas.
Should they sternly send him to time out and take away his screen time (Punishments)? Or set up a system to entice him with stickers and prizes for good behavior (Rewards)?
Many parents grew up with punishments, and it’s understandable that they rely on them. But punishments tend to escalate conflict and shut down learning. They elicit a fight or flight response, which means that sophisticated thinking in the frontal cortex goes dark and basic defense mechanisms kick in. Punishments make us either rebel, feel shamed or angry, repress our feelings, or figure out how not to get caught.
So rewards are the positive choice then, right?
Not so fast. Rewards are more like punishment’s sneaky twin. Families find them alluring (understandably), because rewards can control a child momentarily. But the effect can wear off, or even backfire: “How much do I get?” a client told us her daughter said one day when asked to pick up in her room.
Over decades, psychologists have suggested that rewards can decrease our natural motivation and enjoyment. For example, kids who like to draw and are, under experimental conditions, paid to do so, draw less than those who aren’t paid. Kids who are rewarded for sharing do so less, and so forth. This is what psychologists call the “overjustification effect” — the external reward overshadows the child’s internal motivation.
Rewards have also been associated with lowering creativity. In one classic series of studies, people were given a set of materials (a box of thumbtacks, a candle and book of matches) and asked to figure out how to attach the candle to the wall. The solution requires innovative thinking — seeing the materials in a way unrelated to their purpose (the box as a candle holder). People who were told they’d be rewarded to solve this dilemma took longer, on average, to figure it out. Rewards narrow our field of view. Our brains stop puzzling freely. We stop thinking deeply and seeing the possibilities.
The whole concept of punishments and rewards is based on negative assumptions about children — that they need to be controlled and shaped by us, and that they don’t have good intentions. But we can flip this around to see kids as capable, wired for empathy, cooperation, team spirit and hard work. That perspective changes how we talk to children in powerful ways.
Rewards and punishments are conditional, but our love and positive regard for our kids should be unconditional. In fact, when we lead with empathy and truly listen to our kids, they’re more likely to listen to us.
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