Why the “carrot and stick” style of parenting does not work

A mother decides to go to the mall with her two-year old toddler. As they walk around the mall, they spot a toy store. Inside the toy store, the toddler spots an item and begins to nag the mother to purchase it. The mother says no. The toddler begins to cry and scream. Still, the mother says no. To the mother’s dismay, the toddler’s crying and screaming increases. Embarrassed, the mother relents and purchases the item.

This scene is played out countless times around the world. (You might have been the parent more than once.) The mother’s act of purchasing the item served as a positive reinforcement (giving something desirable) to the child’s crying and screaming. The mother has taught the child that the child need only cry and scream in the future and the child will get what the child wants. Thus, the likelihood of the behavior of crying and screaming recurring in the future has increased.

At the same time, it is a negative reinforcement in that it removed something annoying to the mother (the child’s crying and screaming). It is a reinforcement because the child had taught the mother that in the future the mother need only give what the child wants and the child will cease the undesirable stimulus. Thus, increasing the probability of the mother’s behavior of relenting in the future.

What both mother and child had just demonstrated was Edward Thorndike’s Law of Effect, which proposes that if an action produces a desirable outcome, the likelihood of that behavior repeating would increase. However, if an action produces an undesirable outcome, the likelihood of that behavior repeating in the future will decrease.

B.F. Skinner extended Edward Thorndike’s Law of Effect and brought it from the laboratory to the mainstream by arguing its applicability to shape human behavior. He argued that behaviour which is reinforced (or rewarded) tends to be repeated. And the process by which a person learns which behaviours he should and should not repeat is called Operant Conditioning.

Operant Condition has been the modus operandi of parents for generations. There is, however, a problem: “Children who expect rewards for an activity are less likely to engage in the same activity later than those who were intrinsically motivated.” (Lepper, Green, Nisbett, 1993)

Punishment

Unlike reinforcement which increases the likelihood of a behavior recurring in the future, punishments serve to decrease undesirable behavior. Similar to reinforcement, there are positive and negative types of punishments. To use positive punishment is to give something undesirable that decreases the likelihood of the behavior recurring. The most common form of positive punishment is infliction of pain, like spanking. Negative punishment is when something desirable is taken away to reduce the likelihood of a behavior recurring such as taking away privileges or something the child enjoys.

Punishment is always present at the other end of a demand. When I make a demand, its essential message is that the only thing that matters is that I get my way. If I don’t, and I have the power to do so, I will punish you. If I do, I will reward you. One spouse can punish the other when that spouse’s demand is not met, and it may come in the form of coldness, rudeness, or a frown. Children can sense when their parents are unhappy with them. The change in the tone of voice. The subtle withdrawal of love and affection. Children receive these as a form of punishment.

Punishments tend to escalate conflict and shut down learning. They elicit a fight or flight response, which means that sophisticated thinking in the frontal cortex goes dark and basic defense mechanisms kick in. Punishments make us either rebel, feel shamed or angry, repress our feelings, or figure out how not to get caught.

Punishment leads to shame, and “the emotion of shame is the primary or ultimate cause of all violence whether toward others or toward the self.” (Gilligan, 1996: 110)

While parenting by rewards and punishment might get the child to do what you want, the child will not learn problem solving skills or how to self-regulate. It will also not build the parent-child relationship.

Back to the despairing mother and the screaming child at the mall. Perhaps this mother could have mitigated this unpleasant situation by implementing a “time-out.” Better still, she could learn to be an Emotion Coach to her child.