Jon Lasser, Ph.D.

School and Family Matters

Alternatives to Punishment and Rewards

What parents can do to meet long term goals.

Posted Feb 10, 2018

Today's parenting books look quite different from those your parents read. Increasingly, the guides are encouraging parents to think about alternatives to punishment and rewards for optimal child guidance. Books like No Drama Discipline, Unconditional Parenting, and Raising Human Beings all suggest that we're much more likely to help transform our kids into healthy, independent, self-regulating adults if we raise them in a way that's very different from the way we were raised. But how?

First, let's consider what kind of parenting the newer books are rejecting. Authoritarian parenting, which is usually described as "high demands, low responsiveness," is characterized by a controlling approach with little warmth. This style may use rewards and punishments to control behavior, and such an approach seems to be effective from the perspective of many parents and teachers. Unfortunately, for many kids this approach is not only ineffective, it may be counterproductive.

Dr. Alfie Kohn has summarized the research on rewards and punishments in families and schools and stands out as one of the sharpest critics of these strategies in his books Punished by Rewards and Unconditional Parenting. He argues that punishment and reward are two sides of the same coin and serve only to control children to meet adult needs. Even worse, punishment and reward deprive children of the opportunity to take risks, develop creativity, and self-regulate.

So, if punishment and rewards are counterproductive, what's the alternative? Child development experts advocate for collaborative approaches to addressing some of the most challenging behaviors. When a child does something wrong, parents do not punish, but rather work with the child to better understand what happened and then develop better alternatives.

Here's an example: Mikey took some money out of his father's wallet and bought some candy after school. When Mike's father discovered what had happened, he first paid attention to his feelings (anger, frustration) and spent some time calming down before talking to Mikey. He then connected with Mikey, explained that he knows that Mikey likes candy, and asked whether there was a better way to get his needs met without stealing. Mikey apologized and said that he could ask for money or candy without being sneaky. They hugged, talked about trust and honest, and agreed to talk about things they wanted rather than stealing.

The example about makes this process look easy, and it's not. Shifting from a traditional parenting style to a collaborative one takes time, patience, and energy. It may come naturally for some parents and feel frustrating to others. And there's certainly no one-size-fits-all approach. Even so, collaboration does much more to help us achieve our long-term goals of facilitating the development of adults who are driven to do good not for the sake of avoiding a punishment or getting a reward, but rather to do what's right.


Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes (Houghton Mifflin, 1993/1999)

Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason (Atria Books, 2005)

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