Over a hundred years of psychological research that has been backed up neurological studies shows quite clearly how rewards and punishments change people's behaviour, yet still today, even professionals, such as teachers, have no idea how to apply them, so it is not wonder parents can also be confused.
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This is a quick guide to how parents can use rewards and punishments to manage and encourage their children.
Implicitly rewarding behaviour
The most important, but the most difficult to control, is implicitly rewarding behaviour. Hanging out with our friends, watching a movie or TV, or running around like a crazy primary schooler are all implicitly rewarding behaviours.
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What we want as parents is that students going to class, learning and so on is also implicitly rewarding. In many ways it can be. Children are programmed to learn, but they are also programmed to play, to listen to stories and to love their parents. This is why learning from parents through play is always better than any other approach
The main trick is to make sure that implicit behaviour rubs off elsewhere. If you do maths problems with your kids, they will love doing maths at school, if you play sport with them, they will love sport at school. Teach your kids the joy of reading, this will help them enjoy reading text books. Sometimes even something as simple as a change of scenery will mean that kids become excited and have more enthusiasm for other activities.
Rewards for success
I knew an ex-teacher who somehow became a teacher trainer despite his lack of qualifications and experience beyond those of other teachers. In fact he was only a Physical Education teacher. So his idea is that rewards should only be applied for complete success. Not exactly a great behavioural management technique.
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Does this work? Yes, if someone succeeds they should be rewarded. But success is normally part of a very long journey. What we normally do in education is to break down the journey into a lot of little steps and successes. Usain Bolt is the fastest man on the planet, but don't think for a second that his parents didn't clap and shout when he made his first steps.
Many people who learn to give up, do so because they have few successes and fewer rewards. We need to make sure our children's goals are built around their level and appropriate standards are set.
Reward for effort
This brings us to one of the most controversial issues with rewards. We can't always reward success, especially if success is difficult and a long way off for that person. This is why we start by rewarding behaviours that are close.
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This is where we get the rewards for participation that are so maligned. You see if you don't encourage people and reward them for effort then they will never have success. Just as adults wouldn't turn up to work without a paycheck, so too children won't turn up to school if it is not rewarding.
While teaching abroad with unqualified teachers, you would see many of them insult and harass students they didn't like and wonder why they wouldn't come to class. I would thank these students when they came to class and treated them with respect, and they were the hardest working students in my class.
The idea is that you reward your kids to approach the behaviour that you want. For example, if they are not doing well with their homework, start by rewarding them for completing their homework. Once they are finishing their homework, you want to reward for getting better marks, while removing the reward for just completing the homework. This is well understood system of rewards.
Punishment by itself is useless
We can understand the value of rewards by seeing what happens when someone is merely punished. In many classrooms students are continually punished by teachers who can't understand why that student won't behave. But the answer is simple, people seek rewards and avoid punishment. Unless you are giving people rewards, your punishments will have little impact.
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I have taught children, and if you become the source of reward for them, they will do anything you tell them to do. If you play games, make them happy and give them attention, there is little they won't do if you ask them. If you punish them, they will learn only how to avoid punishment. Often learning what you don't want them to learn.
Every person you have met who lies, cheats or refuses to take responsibility, are doing so because they have spent a life learning how to avoid punishment.
Yes, punishment works, but it needs to be tied to a specific thing that you want your children to stop doing. It also needs to be tied to rewards for what you want your children to be doing. Eg, if you want your children not to act out and to behave, you need to consistently punish the acting out, but more importantly you need to reward your child when they behave.
It's not rocket science
This is basic behavioural psychology. This is not the complete guide to parenting, but it is the basics of managing behaviour. There are many other aspects as well, such as building resilience, teaching kids who to self-manage their own behaviour, providing role models and so on. However with these basic skills you can manage any one specific problem.