Reward vs. Punishment: Which is Really More Effective?

Written by on August 15, 2012 in Family - No comments | Print this page


This is a classic human psychology debate; do we respond better to positive or negative reinforcement? In other words will our children learn the behaviours we want them to based on a punishment system or reward system?

Punishment or negative reinforcement, involves using a negative consequence, such as taking something away; grounding, taking away a favourite toy, removing certain privileges etc.  It is centered on creating feelings of disappointment, regret, sadness and fear.

Reward or positive reinforcement, involves using a positive consequence such as a reward system, praise, or other incentive to encourage desirable behaviour and is centered on creating feelings of joy, happiness, pride, and comfort.

Studies show that positive emotions overwhelmingly trump negative emotions in terms of their ability to influence judgment and behaviour, and that positive reinforcement, especially over the long term, is far more effective than negative reinforcement.

But don’t you think it also depends a great deal on the child and the circumstance?  Don’t we have to find a healthy medium?

I have quite often found myself sending my kids off for early bed time (punishment), putting dollies or action figures in toy jail (punishment), denying computer time, movies, treats etc. based on poor behaviour (punishment) or pointing out that there will be no after diner snacks if they didn’t attempt to eat what was on their supper plate (more punishment.)

Doing away with punishment seems almost impossible doesn’t it?

I can however admit that when I am focusing on encouraging the behaviours in my children that I want to see by using rewards (i.e. getting to have time on the computer, an extra story at bedtime, a new craft kit etc.) that not only is the behaviour easier to sustain but it certain feels better all around.

Who really wants to be the evil, tyrant parent (well that’s how our children see us) laying down the law and stripping the world of fun and freedom? Not me.  Necessary sometimes? Yes, Enjoyable? No.

Recently, after a few weeks of feeling drained and at a loss for how to get my kids to stop fighting, throwing out attitude and doing all sorts of things I would really rather they did not do, I started the three box system.

I drew three boxes on the dry erase board next to each of their names and asked them what they wanted to put down as something that they would be denied if they behaved poorly. My son chose computer time and my daughter chose being able to sleep in the bunk bed.

The next step was to explain the three strikes to them. I told them that if they behaved poorly they would get a strike in a box, three strikes and they would be denied the item they had each chosen.  I thought that this was a fair idea and would be a visual for them to know how they were behaving during the day.

It was my five year old son who piped up and said, “Mommy how about instead of strikes we get checks for good behaviour?”  It was an “aha” moment! What a much better idea! Instead of emphasizing and documenting how poorly they were doing, why not show them how well they can behave??? I agreed and there is no doubt in my mind that they are responding better to the fact that they see they are doing well rather than getting in trouble.  I hear them walk past the fridge and say “I only need one more check!”  Then they run around looking for good deeds they can perform.  They also know that if they do behave badly they will lose their check marks but once they’ve earned them they so far seem less likely to let them slip away.

Children inherently want to be good and they want to hear that they’re being good. They desperately crave positive reinforcement and the positive emotions that result.  As parents it can be all too easy to focus on the bad and not take enough time to say, “hey good job sharing,” or, “That was a really great use of your words, you explained that really well.”  Think of the things big and small that you can recognize your children for and point them out as often as possible.  You will see the positive effect in their faces, attitude and behaviour.

There are lots of great ideas for positive reinforcement and rewards systems…..please share yours or if you disagree share that too! Parenting is not an exact science………………..

it’s a “sigh”-ence……take a deep breath, sigh, and do your best!


About the Author

Jenessa Blanchet

I am a working mother of two, with a passion for writing and lending a literary helping hand to fellow parents and family enthusiasts. Born and raised on the west coast, I have a love of the outdoors; sailing, beaching and all things wonderful including constantly trying to keep a handle on family life. View all posts on Family Life.