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Rewards are Better than Punishment: Here’s Why

Rewards are more effective than punishment when dealing with children.

Many a child developmental professional will advise parents to try to ignore children's bad behavior and reward their good behavior. As most parent's know, this is sometimes easier said than done. After all, bad behavior can be so irritating that it is difficult not to respond to, that is, to ignore. It takes real discipline.

Some parents might object to ignoring bad behavior because they see it, understandably perhaps, as their responsibility to correct the child's misbehavior. Ignoring it may seem like tolerating if not rewarding it and thus failing to do one's duty as a parent.

Despite how reasonable this sounds, it turns out that most experts, including of the Super Nanny variety, are correct. Rewards are more effective than punishment. And some Dutch neuroscientists believe they know why that seems to be the case.

Their work involved 8/9 and 11/12-year olds who were given the opportunity to learn some basic tasks by means of positive, rewarding feedback or negative, "punishing" feedback. Specifically, all children were given a computer task which required them to discover rules, and when they correctly inferred a rule, as revealed by choices they made in the task, a check--positive reward--appeared on the screen; but if their choice indicated that they had not correctly figured out the rule of the task, then a cross--punishment--appeared on the screen. Repeated running of the task showed that performance improved substantially when the feedback was positive in the case of the younger children, telling them they did well when they did, rather than negative, telling them that they did poorly when they did in fact do badly.

Just the opposite proved true in the case of older children, who functioned just like young adults aged 18-25 who were also tested. That is, negative feedback improved performance more for these individuals than did positive feedback.

Because the cognitive tasks central to this research were administered while the children and young adults were in a brain scanning machine, brain imaging revealed that brain areas responsible for cognitive control and located in the cerebral cortex seemed to play a role in why younger and older children learned so differently. That is, these brain control centers were more strongly activated in the face of negative feedback in the case of older children and adults, but more strongly activated when receiving positive feedback in the case of younger children. It is almost as if for the younger children positive feedback registered more strongly, whereas for the older children, just the opposite proved true.

Why might this be so? If you think about it for a moment, as the investigators did, it becomes apparent that information which stipulates that you did something wrong is more complicated than information stipulating that you did something well. So younger children may simply have an easier time processing simpler, positive, rewarding information than negative feedback. As the authors noted, "Learning from mistakes is more complex than carrying on in the same way as before. You have to ask yourself what precisely went wrong and how it was possible." That is, it takes more analysis to figure out that what was done is mistaken than that it is correct.

What remains unknown is exactly what accounts for the change in brain functioning and how it occurs. Do new connections within or between brain regions emerge during the transition to adolescence? Do hormones associated with puberty play a role? Like all good research, this elegant work raises new questions at the same time that it reveals new things.

We now have a better idea why rewards work better than punishment with pre-adolescent children. The task that still remains, of course, is regulating one's own irritability, frustration and thus behavior in the face of annoying child behavior, so that we can ignore it.

More from Jay Belsky Ph.D.
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