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Using Rewards & Punishments

• Be clear about the requirements to receive a reward.
It’s likely that your idea of a clean room and your child’s idea of a clean room differ. Be specific with your requirements, for example: “If you pick up your clothes off the floor and put them neatly in your cupboard, vacuum your room and make your bed, we will go to a movie.”

• Always follow through.
If you promise a reward, and don’t follow through, you’ve made your life more difficult. The reason is that the next time you promise a reward your child won’t believe you. That being said, this works both ways. If your child does not earn the reward, they don’t get it!

• Be clear about the reward itself.
If you say “I will buy you a new pair of shoes if you study for at least one hour every day this week,” your child may be in for a sad realisation when they try to pick out a R2000 pair of shoes. Be clear about any limitations on the reward from the outset.

• Don’t take away rewards that have already been earned.
If your child earns a trip to the movies, and then gets into trouble for something unrelated, don’t take away the reward. You can still use punishment, but it should be separate. Taking away rewards can lead to a constant sense of defeat when a child works hard, yet never sees positive outcomes.

• Try rewarding good habits instead of good outcomes.
An example of this is rewarding your child for studying for an hour each night, instead of rewarding them for an “A” on a test. Even though it seems obvious to adults, many children don’t know how to get an “A” on a test. Use rewards to teach your child habits that will eventually lead to the ultimate goal.

• Create a few simple and clearly defined rules and punishments.
Children find it difficult to understand a long and complex list of rules. There is no opportunity for success if they don’t know what the rules are.

• Always follow through.
The threat of punishment will quickly become meaningless if the punishments never actually happen. It’s easy to feel sympathetic and let your child off the hook, but this is when you need to be firm and follow through.

• Don’t overdo it.
Many parents have a habit of giving out extreme punishments when they’re upset. Grounding your child for a month is as much a punishment to you as it is to your child. After a few days, most parents have cooled down, and they’re tired of having a bored child around the house, so they end the punishment early. This tells the child that you don’t really mean it when you threaten punishment.
• Don’t overdo it (part 2).

If you ground a child for a month, or take away everything they care about, your child will have little motivation to be good. To a child, a month seems like an eternity. Why should they do their homework if they’re grounded “forever” anyway? You’ve just given up all your leverage.

• Never use emotionally painful punishments such as humiliation.
Shaming and humiliating children can irreparably damage your relationship and cause significant distress that results in long-term consequences.

Siobhan Wood, Educational Psychologist
Adapted from Therapist Aid.