Rewards vs. Punishment

Here’s another post of mine that was just published on iVillage.
Here’s what I wrote:

reward punishment piano practice

C2 practising the piano – finally

There’s a battle of wills being fought at the Rodericks’ residence and I’ve broken the first commandment of parenting warfare: Do NOT negotiate with terrorists little children.

Take last Saturday, for instance. My six-year-old son refused to practise the piano.
“I don’t want to do it!” he declared. “I don’t even like the way this piece sounds so why should I have to do it?”

I tried everything: coaxing, explaining, threatening, yelling… I even grovelled. He flat-out refused. By the time we reached piano class, those ivories had not been tickled – not one little bit.

I thought I had this parenting gig sorted. My first-born daughter was a breeze: cheerful, caring, considerate… It was easy to achieve those “positive parenting” goals. But along came my second-born son and moved those goal-posts to Timbuktu. Oh, he’s cute and clever alright – but his stubborn streak would put any mule to shame.

Getting him to do any task (cleaning up his room, finishing homework, helping around the house) results in barrage of whingeing and “but whys”. So I’ve been picking my battles.

There are days when he just pushes my buttons. Days when his bed-time can’t come quickly enough. Days when I want to throw a tanti myself. Days when I want to crack open a bottle of red at 5pm – and I don’t even drink!

reward punishment Caleb

C2 hatching his next plot

After weeks of butting heads, I turned in desperation to – where else? – the interwebs and read this interesting article. A recent experiment done by the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that when children were punished, it resulted in an outcome that was two or three times better than when they were rewarded.

During the study, children were asked to listen for clicks or look out for flashes on a screen. They were rewarded with token money for a correct response, but penalised by having money deducted from them for an incorrect answer. You would think that kids would want more money and work towards that, right? Wrong!

Says Dr Jan Kubanek, who led the study, “Objectively, you would think that winning 25 cents would have the same magnitude of effect as losing 25 cents, but that’s not what we found. Our study suggests that negative feedback may be more effective than positive feedback. From an evolutionary perspective, people tend to avoid punishments or dangerous situations.”

Armed with this knowledge, my husband and I have rewritten the house rules to model this carrot and stick approach. You behave well and do your chores, you get your pocket-money. Tantrums and tears? You get the tough love treatment. Bye-bye privileges and perks! You get a big, fat zero because frankly, my dear, you don’t deserve a thing.

A few days later, it was piano practice time again. This time, I laid down the law – he needed to practise or face the consequences. No coaxing. No cajoling. My son, being the smarty-pants that he is, marched himself to the Naughty Corner in a show of “punishing” himself. I ordered him back to the piano. He refused, saying he liked being in the Naughty Corner!

But I had an ace up my sleeve: technology – my son can’t live without it. The threat of not touching the iPad or watching his favourite show all week was enough for him to wave the white flag and practise those scales perfectly.

The war is over. For now.

So tell me, do you find yourself constantly negotiating with your kids? How do you get them to listen?


2 responses to “Rewards vs. Punishment

  1. From what I understand from my friends who have two kids, one is always a breeze and the other a challenge. Usually the first one is a breeze and the second one a challenge although I suspect in the case of my family it was the other way around as I was the eldest and caused the most trouble! 😛

    Liked by 1 person

    • I find that last line hard to believe, Lorraine! Wonder what your parents would say about this. I know for sure that you’re more than making up for any childhood issues now. 🙂


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