What’s the Right Amount to Reward and Punish Kids? avatar Posted by Dr. Mike Brooks
Feb 18, 2012
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To begin with, this is sort of a trick question. I’m not a big fan of punitive measures and other coercive means to get kids and teens to “behave.” Nor am I a fan of offering endless rewards to gets kids to do what we want. Moreover, instead of “punishment,” I prefer the term “consequences.” Punishment is such a negatively loaded term that using  it with kids and teens can lead to emotional reactions that get in the way of effective communication.

I discussed some of the keys to being a good parent in a previous post. Effective use of behavior management techniques is in that top 10 list. Behavior management, of course, doesn’t just mean punitive measures. Positive discipline, particularly positive attention and praise, should be used much more frequently than loss of privileges, time-outs, lectures, etc. I don’t support the use of corporal punishment as there is a lot of research to indicate that this can cause emotional harm to kids and is not effective in the long-term as a means of behavior management.

So, effective parenting generally consists of creating a strong, supportive, loving relationship with our kids. Behavior management is subsumed with this positive relationship. In fact, across many types of relationships, including parenting, successful marriages, and effective business teams, a consistent finding is that the ratio of positive comments, compliments, and praise to negative comments and corrections should be at least 3 to 1 and perhaps even closer to 5 to 1. For praise to be most effective, it should be specific (e.g., “Hey, Joey! Thanks a lot for putting your dirty dishes in the dishwasher. I really appreciate that!”) rather than general, canned words (e.g., “good job”).

Earning rewards and privileges should be part of our toolkit as parents. Invariably, at least at times, we do need to levy some types of consequences for certain types of misbehavior as well. Now, I’ll cover some other aspects of this topic in another blog, but I wanted to say just a few words about the amount of consequences that should be used when it becomes necessary. Ready for the simple answer? Here it is: The least amount necessary to get the desired behavioral change. And, on a related note: As infrequently as you need to in order to incentivize behavior. 

The entire purpose of using consequences (and rewards) in the first place is to try to get your child or teen to alter his or her behavior. Seeking retribution for misbehavior should not be in this equation at all. If you are too upset to think straight, don’t levy a consequence until you can clear your head (and, if you have a partner, it’s good to consult with him/her to be on the same page).

Why give a 30-minute time out if a 5-minute time out will do? Why take away video game privileges for one week if a day will get the desired result? In fact, if we take away a privilege for too long (e.g., “You just lost your cell phone for a month, mister!”), we can end up hurting ourselves. For example, in the scenario with the cell phone, what if we need to contact our teen for pragmatic reasons? We took away his cell phone for an entire month! DOH! Also, we can’t use the consequence of losing a cell phone again for quite some time if we’ve taken it away for a month.

Regarding rewards, the same principle applies. For instance, if you arrange for your child to earn bonus video game time for doing some extra chores, just allow him to earn the minimum amount that your child finds motivating enough to do the extra chores.

Rewards and punishments, I believe, are a necessary part of our behavior management toolkit, but there is much more to parenting than strategically using them. Forming a strong, positive, loving bond with our kids is THE most important aspect parenting. Rewards and punishments are subsumed within this relationship – for them to truly be effective, we NEED to have this positive bond. Funny thing is, when we have this strong connection, we don’t need to use rewards and punishments near as frequently. The positive relationship itself creates a natural leverage of influence with your kids…and for that matter, this is true of all relationships. But when we invariable need to use some rewards and punishments, remember this principle:  Use the least amount and as infrequently as necessary to get the desired behavioral change. When a little gets the results, there’s no need for anything more.

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Dr. Brooks is a Licensed Psychologist and the Director of the Austin Psychology & Assessment Center (ApaCenter). He provides therapy, consultation, and coaching services to adolescents and adults. His areas of specialization and professional interests include mindfulness, cognitive behavioral therapy,solution-oriented therapy, feedback informed treatment (FIT), positive psychology, positive computing, empirically-supported treatment, and existential issues.
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