This week’s Sunday Scribblings topic is Punishment and Rewards
As you might know if you’re a regular reader, we try to parent sans punishments or rewards. It’s a novel concept to some, but seems normal to us. But it is pretty difficult to parent in this way when the whole world seems to be set up to punish or reward everyone – especially children – for behavior, actions, decisions, etc.
Take a day and try to notice all the carrot-and-stick approaches you see. They’re everywhere. And always with the “good job” these days. Wally climbed out of the cart at the store today (it was time to go) and an employee said “oh, Good Job!!” Please. Last spring, my mom continually praised Wally for sliding “Oh, Good Slide Wally!” I suggested to her that it was really just gravity and not any special talent on his part.
These days, parents are advised to reward children for doing the simplest, most every day tasks. Using the toilet. Eating a meal. Doing chores. Whatever. In our house, certain things are just expected. Wally does not get rewarded for using the toilet. He doesn’t get rewarded for eating his food. He doesn’t get rewarded for doing simple tasks. He is just expected to do these things. To reward him for them would be to change them – he would no longer be using the toilet because it’s just nicer than going in your pants. He would be using the toilet because he gets M&Ms. He would no longer be doing his “chores” because we all have to chip in when we live together, he’d be doing them for the reward. I don’t want to make him into a reward whore.
Nor do I want him doing things because he’s afraid he’ll be punished if he does not. Using the toilet to avoid a spanking instead of just to stay in clean pants. Helping out around the house because he’s afraid of being yelled at instead of just because we all have to chip in. Doing what he’s asked because he’s afraid we’ll leave him instead of doing it just for the joy of getting along and making others happy.
Nor do I want him to feel that he has to earn our love. We give it freely. He should not have to earn it with good behavior, or particular actions.
There are some in the Christian community who criticize this parenting style as being not Christian. God punishes us, they reason, so we should punish our children. But does God really punish us? I do not think so. I think God lets us experience the consequences of our behavior, good or bad. But this is not the same as punishment – it’s not some cosmic lightening bolt sent down to zap us. I believe that we will be rewarded at the end of our journey, for sure. But in the meantime, I don’t think God baits us with carrots along the way. He does choose to bless us, and abundantly at that. But those blessings are given out of love, just because. Not because we’ve been “good.” Goodness, if God only blessed those who were “good,” do you know anyone who would ever receive a blessing? I sure wouldn’t.
So we strive to do with Wally what God does with us. Let him experience the consequences of his behavior (and implementing consequences when necessary – I can’t let him experience the consequence of running into traffic, but I can implement the consequence not being allowed to walk independently near traffic). And choose to bless him out of love, and just because. Not because he’s earned it.
We don’t want to be implementing punishments/”consquences” that have very little to do with the “crime” as is so common these days.
Now, am I perfect at this? No. My tendency when I’m at the end of my rope is to punish, and to punish stupidly. My two fallback punishments – Telling Wally no just because I can, and withdrawing love (aka attention) in response to unwanted behaviors. Today, for example, Wally drew on the fridge (he’s in this jag where he cannot use writing utensils responsibly) so then when he asked me for some soy milk I said no. Just because I was mad. It was so stupid. It’s like a power trip, really.
(I did also remove all of the writing utensils from his vicinity, and we made a ceremony out of putting away all of his markers and crayons for a few days. Every time he asks for a marker, we just explain that he was not using them responsibly so we had to put them away. This consequence makes sense, refusing to give him a treat doesn’t make sense.)