You know how, today, we regard spanking as outmoded and barbaric? One day we’ll feel that way about any punishment.
I got killed on CBC’s Steven and Chris show, where I’m the only dad on the parenting panel, when I argued that grounding kids was a bad idea. Not only that—I said that I try to avoid punishment of any kind. The other panellists guffawed. “You are going to be in so much trouble when your kids are teenagers,” said my fellow panellist Dee Brun, who has four children, two of whom are in high school. “Teenagers now, because of this style of parenting, they don’t know what consequence is anymore…. It’s like, ‘Mom and Dad are my BFFs. They let me do whatever I want.’”
I really like Brun. She’s a Steven and Chris veteran, and she’s been kind to me, a comparative TV rookie. But I couldn’t disagree with her more. You know how, today, we regard spanking as outmoded and barbaric? One day we’ll feel that way about any punishment. And we’ll view parenting tactics that motivate kids through bribery or rewards as equally heavy-handed.
I lapse into both behaviours occasionally, typically when I require speed from my two kids: trying to hurry them out the door on a school morning, or swinging through Dufferin Mall to buy a last-minute birthday present. Nevertheless, a whole series of experts, such as writers Alfie Kohn and Daniel H. Pink, have convinced me that this is bad parenting. The best parents, it seems, don’t need to use penalties or rewards. They don’t control their children—their children control themselves.
There are a bunch of problems with the reward-punishment dynamic. It may be effective in the short term, but after months and years, time-outs and groundings lose their sting, forcing the parent to up the punishment’s unpleasantness. (“You’re grounded for two months!”) The same goes for rewards. (“You get a TV in your room if you get an 80-per-cent average.”)
Controlling your kids like this might be better than the old style of corporal discipline—but it’s still coercion. You’re showing that it’s okay for the bigger and stronger to exercise their power over the smaller and weaker. If we do it to our kids, then they’re likely to do it to other kids, and so on. Some people call that parenting, but it’s really a form of bullying.
It’s also confusing. This kind of coercion makes it harder for children to understand the consequences of their behaviour. I don’t want my kids making choices about how to conduct themselves based on what I’m going to do if they get caught. My son should avoid jumping on the couch because he could break it, not because I’m going to do something unpleasant to him if I catch him doing it.
To me, the worst thing about the reward-punishment cycle is that it introduces a destructive distance into the parent-child relationship. Are you honest with the friends or relatives who judge you? Of course not. Nor can a child be fully honest with a parent who’s constantly evaluating whether to mete out carrots or sticks.
So what do you do when children mess up? First of all, you don’t insulate them from the consequences. That requires some toughness. A kid who doesn’t get ready quickly enough in the morning is late for school—and that’s on him. A kid who cheats on a test fails the course—and that’s on her.
Am I, as Dee Brun predicted, due for major problems in adolescence thanks to this anti-punishment approach? I don’t think so. By sidestepping punishment, I’m hoping to have a relationship with my kids that’s characterized by honesty and trust. I’m hoping they’ll feel that they can come to me with any problem that arises. More to the point, I’m hoping that when problems arise, they don’t have to come to me, because they will have developed strong enough reasoning abilities to decide for themselves on a responsible course of action. At least I hope so. Check in with me in another decade or so.