Ahh how sweet it is!!

Ahh how sweet it is!! That is how I tend to sum up my life in a few words. Plain and simple, life is wonderful! This site will give you just a sneak peak at my thoughts throughout my life. Love, Mel

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Location: Bountiful, Utah, United States

Monday, February 13, 2006

Thoughts: Rewards and Punishments

February 13, 2006

Therefore, what manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am. (3 Nephi 27.)


Catchy isn’t it? But is it true? In a lifetime of sitting at the feet of gurus (PET, Transactional Analysis, Neuro Linguistic Programming, Covey and various other disciples) I’ve come to believe it is true. Boiled down, it really only testifies to the power of example on young minds. Never mind whether one’s example was good or bad. The literature is filled with examples of abused children who—regardless of how bad the example was, and how much they hated being abused—nevertheless grew up to be abusers themselves.

So what, you say? So, we better do periodic self-assessments, and make needful course corrections, to ensure that when our children become “like us”, we still like them! Come to think of it, I still do like all of you very much. Does this mean you have become what I am? Not fully. In fact, in my opinion, you have become more what I would like to be. Does this explode the theory? I think not, for several reasons. First, Mom and I are a team. What you’ve become reflects both of us plus your own eternal intelligence, character and disposition. As to your parents’ influence, I’d like to think it was mostly Mom plus the best that I had to offer. For instance, if you are not prone to ground your kids—a questionable Method II habit—you have your Mom to thank. Many is the time at 3:00 A.M. that I would vent my spleen about grounding one or the other of you for being out so late only to have Mom active listen me and use other non evaluative listening techniques such as the therapeutic grunt (hmmmmm), and that would be the end of it. On the other hand, if you’re eating all the food on your plate and never throwing away leftovers, you have only me to thank—or curse. Hopefully, if any of you are prone to beating your kids, you aren’t able to trace that back to my style (this excludes the pulling out of the belt and watching you all scream, laugh and jump under the covers—of our bed, usually—to avoid the wrath of Hammurabi). This is not to say there weren’t times I chose—seeing the battle now from a comfortable reflective position—to become angry and administer a few verbal and physical swats. Maybe as we plod quietly along seeking to become like Him, these “sins,” like others will someday be banished from memory due to something other than old age. I don’t mean to say that in child rearing there is not a place for a—carefully, while under control and rational—strategically placed swat or “zinger.” But the circumstances under which this should be administered should be well defined. (More on this in a minute).

During the course of Melinda’s visit with us before and during the holidays, we had the opportunity to discuss methods for producing change in behavior (a bit presumptuous, really) in our children. This was prompted in no small part by Roman’s behavior of getting out of bed (immediately after being put in bed) four to six times before he decided further attempts at being up were useless. We studied James Dobson and Alfie Kohn, among others. Interestingly, we found there were different philosophies regarding the use of punishments and rewards with children. Even though Dobson favors rewards to bring about change, I prefer Kohn’s approach that recommends avoidance of punishments and rewards. As Melinda and I talked, she asked me, “What then does Kohn suggest to parents to change behavior if we are not to use some form of punishment or reward?” In simple words, what is the alternative to punishment/reward? Unfortunately, at the time I had not completed my reading of Kohn’s alternatives, but now, having done so, I would like to share my interpretation of his views, which essentially coincide with my own.

Kohn’s Points

1. He sees the question (highlighted above) as perfectly reasonable but difficult to answer for several reasons: A) “the alternative to rewards depends on whether we are talking about raising children, teaching students, or managing employees.” Of course, here we are focused on children. B) The alternative also depends on the cause of the behavioral problem. He reminds readers “what is most alluring about pop behaviorism is its promise of one answer to all questions. It is a false promise, though, which helps explain why rewards don’t work in the long run.” He maintains, “no answer to all the complex motivational issues we find ourselves facing is both easy and effective. The temptation is therefore strong to pick one that is just easy.” C) The third reason for his discomfort in giving a quick alternative to rewards has to do with the goal of parent’s intervention. The fact is, according to Kohn, “that discussions about alternatives generally assume there is agreement on the objective”…but this may not be the case. If what you want [i.e., your goal] is to get a child…to do what you say, then the answer to the question ‘”What’s the alternative to rewards’” is that there probably is no alternative (with the possible exception of punishment). To induce short-term compliance, behavioral manipulation is the best we’ve got. If, however, your goal is…to help your child grow into a caring, responsible, decent person, then it makes no sense to ask ‘what’s the alternative to rewards?’ because rewards never moved us one millimeter toward those objectives. (Reread the last sentence at least two times). In fact, rewards actively interfere with our attempts to reach them.” By the way, when Kohn makes such assertions, he is able to back them up with verifiable research studies.

2. Kohn maintains that most books and seminars designed to teach parents on how to bring up children have three features. “First, more talk is devoted to eliminating unwanted behaviors than to promoting positive values and skills; second, step-by-step plans are provided for parents to implement; and third, copious use is made of punishments (“consequences”) and/or rewards (“positive reinforcements”). He takes a different approach on all three issues and “does not presume to offer anything like a comprehensive guide to raising children…” In fact, it seems to me, he doesn’t dwell nearly as much on what to do as what “not” to do, i.e., punish and reward, trusting the “what to do” to parents who are now more enlightened. He notes, “An approach that focuses on coping with problems does little to help children grow into good people, and may actually interfere with that goal. On the other hand, if we are effective in promoting positive values and skills, we may reduce the number of problems requiring intervention on a daily basis.” I think this is huge. Inculcating values so that children will be self-directed may take more sweat and tears than the carrot or stick, but, I believe, will pay dividends later on. “Teach a child when young…and he will not depart far from it.” Joseph Smith: “I teach correct principles and they govern themselves.”

3. “Parenting guidelines,” according to Kohn, “…share a reliance on punishments and rewards, and I want to … urge that we dispense with these tactics or at least drastically reduce their use.” Kohn suggests that we need to “reframe the way we think about our relationships with children.” In this regard, he suggests that about the time children reach the age of two, instead of employing “experts’” strategies for doing things to have the child behave as we want, that we instead “shift from doing things to an infant to doing things with a child.

4. Kohn stresses that there is “nothing objectionable about ‘structures’ or ‘limits’ that speak to such matters as when they should go to bed, what they should eat, which items are not to be played with, and where they must not go.” However, he maintains that whether a “given limit is reasonable…is another matter. To determine “reasonableness” and whether a given limit should be endorsed, requires consideration of “the purpose of the limit, how confining it is, and who came up with it.” In other words, a given “limit” needs to be tested against purpose, (“for example protecting a child from injuring himself”), restrictiveness (“for example, preventing access to certain cabinets rather than forcing a toddler to stay in one small space”), and contribution i.e., has the child “contributed to the arrangement to the fullest possible extent (for example, in helping come up with a plan for getting homework done). One non-example of the above comes to mind, that being the mother of a two year old in Utah who forced her child to drink excessive amounts of water—eventually killing the child—because the child wouldn’t eat her food. The mother was sentenced to seven years at the point of the mountain.

5. Regarding control, “a word,” say Kohn, “that generally implies the use of coercion or pressure to impose one’s will on a child,” he agrees that “even the most ardent opponent of control would hesitate to rule out all such interventions, particularly with young children. Sometimes it is necessary to insist, to put one’s foot down. Still, it seems reasonable to propose that parents…try to use the least intrusive or coercive strategy necessary to achieve a reasonable end. Don’t move a child roughly if you can move her gently; don’t move her gently if you can tell her to move; don’t tell her if you can ask her.

6. The degree of control used at home is predictive of how a “child will act in other situations. Researchers keep finding that a heavy-handed approach is not only less effective but also more likely to be associated with disruptive and aggressive behavior patters when the child is away from home. Kohn cites a study that shows “even a better way to predict those [future] behavior patterns was to keep watching to see how parents reacted if their children didn’t do what they were told. The outcomes were worse when a parent hollered, hit, threatened, punished, or otherwise turned up the heat in an effort to regain the upper hand after initial noncompliance. (Maybe this sheds some light on the cause of all the bullying problems at school that has received a lot of media attention in Utah of late).

7. Kohn suggests that many parents punish “not only because we lose our tempers, but also because it may seem to us the only alternative.” People convince themselves that punishment for misbehavior teaches the child and prevents future misbehavior. “Moreover, we see ourselves as administering an elemental sort of justice; having broken a rule, the child must now be punished.” Kohn argues, “punishment teaches about the use of power, not about how or why to behave properly.” His view is that many parents punish because they don’t want to lose. They think (probably using a faulty mental model) “that a child is inclined to do what he can get away with and will keep doing it until forcibly restrained.” (A sort of “Theory X” view of managing children—sorry, but it has been shown that many supervisors tend to see and treat their employees the same as they do their children).

8. Kohn believes it is unhealthy and unnecessary to pursue an adversarial relationship with a child (unrighteous dominion). In his view, “there are two fundamentally different ways one can respond to a child who does something wrong. One is impose a punitive consequence. Another is to see the situation as a ‘teachable moment,’ an opportunity to educate or to solve a problem together. The response here is not ‘You’ve misbehaved; now here’s what I’m going to do to you’ but ‘Something has gone wrong; what can we do about it?’ (If you’ve read this far, this would be an excellent time to bookmark for reading PET Chapter 11, “The No-lose Method for Resolving Conflicts.”). Says Kohn, “The latter represents a different way of seeing as much as a different way of reacting, and there are plenty of reasons to favor this perspective. Using power to make unpleasant things happen to someone is an intrinsically objectionable way of interacting with people, especially children. If there is any way to avoid this, it seems virtually self-evident that we should do so. Kohn suggests that, “working together to solve problems offers a vote of confidence, a statement of trust, to a child. It says, ‘I believe that when you understand the moral issues involved, and when you have the necessary skills, you will act responsibly.’ This belief sets into motion what we might call an ‘auspicious’ circle:” (I call it a virtuous cycle) “the more we trust, the more likely a child is to love up to that trust.”

I’m sure there are many who would say, “Does this work in the real world.” Often parents state this in a PET class, like we were talking about something out of science fiction. Kohn says to this question, “the more apt question is, does punishment work in the real world? Experience and research teach us that troublesome behavior increases when children are punished, that underlying problems aren’t solved, that dubious values are modeled. Almost anything would represent an improvement over this.” He maintains that respect, not coercion, commitment to work with the child and fixing things together “is not only nicer but far more likely to produce lasting results.”

9. Skeptics may respond, “what about repeated or very serious wrongdoing? Don’t we have to impose a punishment (or “consequence”) at some point? Kohn suggests the premise to this question is “that adults haven’t really taken action (or gotten serious) until they have caused something unpleasant to happen to a child. This assumption reflects a widespread tendency…to think in dualistic terms: either we punish or let it go. (The problem-solving approach recommended here would thus be construed as a fancy version of letting it go.)” Another implicit belief [paradigm] underlying this perspective “is that until a child has suffered, nothing meaningful has taken place. No pain, go gain. [Forget the “I-message,” this behavior calls for the belt!] The fact is “that everything we know about the futility of punishment doesn’t stop being true just because the child’s behavior is especially disturbing or has continued over time. [Remember, people—even children—behave in a way that makes sense to them and meets a need] Punishing a child for a truly destructive act is no more sensible than punishing her for a trifle; one could argue it makes even less sense because the stakes are higher. By contrast, trying to get to the heart of the problem and work it out is a meaningful response even if—in fact, partly because—it is not painful or humiliating.”

10. Kohn observes, “The temptation to punish grows as the act persists, not because punishment becomes inherently more sensible but because we become more desperate. (I’ve talked to Johnny until I’m blue in the face, and nothing has changed.) When one approach to solving problems together doesn’t produce results, it makes sense to modify the approach, not to abandon the idea of solving problems in favor of using threats and coercion.”

Kohn, of course, does not think that an occasional mild punitive response or a “Skinnerian incentive” (If you’ll do that, I’ll give you this) is the end of the world, especially if the environment is warm and loving. (Read section 121.) “But,” he states, “It is vital that we keep in mind the desirability of avoiding punishment and reward whenever we can. There is a difference between forgiving ourselves an occasional blunder and refusing to admit that certain approaches are blunders.

Obviously, it takes time and determination—depending on our paradigms and circumstance—to apply this philosophy. “The urge to punish and yell and even hit—or to rely on the tactic of control by seduction (that is, rewards)—can be difficult to resist…It takes time to develop confidence in a child’s capacity to function in the absence of bribes or threats. More to the point, it takes time to develop confidence in our own ability to manage without them.

That’s about all I want to say, other than, thank heavens for the gospel and the true picture it gives us of who our children and we are and what our potential is. Just picture how you think Elohim deals with His “misbehaving” children, or—more down to earth—just watch Marlene.

Of course, your comments, thoughts and criticisms are welcome—even desired.

Speak your truth quietly and clearly, and listen to others, even to the
Dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. Max Ehrmann



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