What’s the "Right" Amount of Discipline?

appropriate rewards for children

As I posted in my previous blog, I’m not a big fan of “disciplining” children. By “discipline,” I mean the use of various  rewards & punishments to get our kids to increase or decrease certain behaviors. For most folks, I think that “disciplining” children is focused on punitive measures (e.g., grounding, restrictions, taking away TV, toys, video games). I am not a believer in the use of corporal punishment with children. I know this can be controversial subject, so perhaps I’ll reserve that for a separate blog!

For the purposes of this blog, I’m also focusing “rewards” in terms of different types of incentives (e.g,. stickers, money, candy, toys, and privileges such as video game time). Praise can be a wonderful reinforcer, and we definitely should use praise, attention, recognition, (and verbal corrections) within the context of a strong relationship to help our kids “behave.” This blog is about the other types of “discipline” though.

Parenting shouldn’t mainly be about dangling (metaphorical) carrots and waving (metaphorical) sticks to get our children to do what we think they should be doing. I believe that if, as I detailed in the aforementioned blog, we invest in building strong relationships with our children, they will naturally be more inclined to listen to us and follow our directions. This, of course, doesn’t mean they always will, it just increases the odds. Now for a few caveats:

  1. I’m NOT saying that we don’t ever need to use various types of rewards and punishments with our children.
  2. I’m not talking about corporal punishment – I don’t advocate its use. Technically, according to principles of operant conditioning, a punishment is the introduction of stimulus or a change in the environment in response to a behavior with the goal of decreasing that particular behavior. The behavior is the target, NOT the child. I just want to ensure that the term punishment is not equated with physical punishment. The term is much more broad than that.
  3. For children on the autism spectrum, a systemic approach to behavior intervention called Applied Behavior Analysis or “ABA” is very effective. The earlier the intervention, the more positive the results are likely to be. However, ABA is a very systematic approach to behavior analysis and modification…or the “shaping” of desired behaviors. It’s not the type of discipline I’m talking about in this blog.
A Powerful Tip on How to Discipline

Okay, this might strike you as rather obvious but, in my twenty years of practice, I’ve seen parents make this mistake so many times that I believe it is worth a blog. I’ve always liked the expression that don’t use a frying pan to kill a fly when you can use a fly swatter. When using various rewards (more technically, these are referred to as reinforcements) and punishments, parents should use the least amount necessary to get the desired result. 

Here’s how this principle looks in practice. Let’s say that you have two kiddos, and that you’ve established a rule that they will lose video game time if they are aggressive with one another or peers/friends. Let’s say Johnny gets upset with Timmy and pushes him hard to the ground and hurts Timmy. How much video game time should Johnny lose? Well, if taking it away for a day will likely change his behavior, then only take the video games away for one day. Why take it away for a week? What purpose does that serve?

Other Considerations When Using Reinforcement and Punishment
  1. If we take a privilege away for an extended period, then we can’t use the withdrawal of that privilege until the punishment period ends. Taking away video games or, for teens, cell phones, for a period of time can be a powerful motivator for behavior change. But if we take away the cell phone from a teen for a month, then we can’t take it away as a consequence again for any other type of behavior problem for that an entire month!
  2. If we give a very big reward to reinforce a desired behavior (e.g., a big slumber/pizza party with friends for good grades), then this sets the bar very high. So, such big rewards can backfire in that trying to reward other behaviors might pale in comparison to the previously obtained reward: “I don’t want stickers! Let’s go to Chuck E. Cheese like last time!”
  3. If reward behaviors that are already intrinsically motivating, then the child might lose motivation to engage in the behavior on their own. For instance, if you pay your child to practice piano, it is likely that she will enjoy it less than she used to and is less likely to practice/play on her own without the incentive of money as a reward being offered.

Reinforcements in the form of tangible rewards and punishments have their place in parenting but, overall, it is best to focus on the relationship. A strong relationship with our children is the real key to successful parenting. It is through this relationship that we can use praise and redirection to help encourage desired behavior and discourage undesired behavior. But when we do need to use more tangible rewards and punishments, keep in mind the principle that we should use the least amount necessary to get the desired result.

You might be interested in Dr. Brooks’ second post on this topic: A Powerful Strategy to Improve Behavior Problems.

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