I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of “punishment” for teaching children. Early on, when our son was probably around two, and against my better judgement, my husband and I decided to try out having a “naughty spot” for our son to go when he had done something naughty. The night we tried it out I don’t even remember what his offense was – only that he stepped happily over to the “naughty spot” as if it were a game, and then looked over at us with a smile. I felt sick with myself. I could see what introducing “punishment” would do to our relationship with our son and I decided in that moment that it would never happen.

Since then, we’ve struggled with ways to resolve conflicts with our boy, and with getting him to do what we want him to. But I’ve never believed that “getting kids to do what you want them to” is any kind of legitimate goal in parenting. And for the most part, reasoning with him works just fine – although I am aware that sometimes the “reasoning” starts to sound a little like punishment (“if you keep yelling, your cousin is going to have to go home.”) I do think there is a difference between enforcing rules and explaining consequences and “punishment” – but maybe it’s not as solid a line as I thought initially. So we keep struggling.

But after a few years of pursuing punishment-free parenting, it is really heartening to see that there are strong arguments (and even data!) on our side. I’ve started reading Alfie Kohn’s “Unconditional Parenting” and I just can’t recommend it enough.  Here are some excerpts re: the consequences of “teaching” via punishment and reward (yes, using rewards can be just as harmful.) And just to be clear, of course I’m not even talking about corporal punishment, spanking, etc. which we would never have even contemplated (unless of course we wanted to raise children who believed that the way to get other people to do what you want is to hit them. Especially people who are smaller than you.)

Here’s Kohn on “time outs”:

“One clue to the nature of the technique is provided by the origin of the term. Time Out is actually an abbreviation for time out from positive reinforcement. The practice was developed almost half a century ago as a way of training laboratory animals. As B.F. Skinner and his followers labored, for example, to teach pigeons to peck at certain keys in response to flashing lights, they tinkered with different schedules by which food was offered as a reward for doing what the experimenters wanted. Sometimes they also tried punishing the birds by withholding food, or even by shutting off all the lights, to see whether that would ‘extinguish’ the key-pecking behavior. This was done with other critters, too. Thus, a colleague of Skinner published an article in 1958 called ‘Control of Behavior in Chimpanzees and Pigeons by Time-out from Positive Reinforcement.’

“Within a few years, articles began appearing in these same experimental psychology journals with titles like ‘Timeout Duration and the Suppression of Deviant Behavior in Children.’ In that particular study, the children subjected to time-outs were described as ‘retarded, institutionalized subjects.’ But soon this intervention was being prescribed indiscriminately, and even discipline specialists who would have been aghast at the idea of treating children like lab animals were enthusiastically advising parents to give their kids a time-out when they did something wrong. Before long it had become ‘the most commonly recommended discipline procedure in the professional literature for preadolescent children.’

“We are talking about a technique, then, that began as a way of controlling animal behavior. All three of those words may raise troubling questions for us.”

…on “love withdrawal” forms of punishment as a whole:

“Many years ago, a psychologist named Martin Hoffman challenged the distinction between power-based and love-based discipline by pointing out that love withdrawal, a common example of the latter, actually has a lot in common with more severe forms of punishment. Both communicate to children that if they do something we don’t like, we’ll make them suffer in order to change their behavior. (The only remaining question is how we’ll make them suffer: by causing physical pain through hitting, or by causing emotional pain through enforced isolation.) And both are based on getting kids to focus on the consequences of their actions to themselves, which is, of course, very different from raising children to think about how their actions will affect other people.”

This last point is key. And it gets at the distinction between intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. Says Kohn, “Intrinsic motivation basically means you like what you’re doing for its own sake, whereas extrinsic motivation means you do something as a means to an end – in order to get a reward or avoid a punishment. It’s the difference between reading a book because you want to find out what happens in the next chapter and reading because you’ve been promised a sticker or a pizza for doing so.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my children growing up to pursue stickers and pizza. I want them to love learning and to have pursuits they are passionate about. Pursuing extrinsic rewards and avoiding punishment is a very very low form of human existence. So much so that I’m not even sure I’d call it human.

Kohn continues:

“What I want to emphasize is that extrinsic motivation is likely to erode intrinsic motivation. As extrinsic goes up, intrinsic tends to come down. The more that people are rewarded for doing something, the more likely they are to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward.”

And there are studies backing him up:

“…one experiment after another has demonstrated that rewards are not only ineffective – they’re often counterproductive. For example, researchers have found that children who are rewarded for doing something nice are less likely to think of themselves as nice people. Instead, they tend to attribute their behavior to the reward. Then, when there’s no longer a goody to be gained, they’re less likely to help than are kids who weren’t given a reward in the first place. They’re also less likely to help than they themselves used to be [emphasis mine]. After all, they’ve learned that the point of coming to someone’s aid is just to get a reward.”

There’s lots more, and other studies too. This is a fantastic book and I’m sure I’ll be quoting from it some more. But for now, I just want to let this last bit sink in.

Originally published on On the Banks, April 1, 2014