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The Effects of Punishment Vs. Rewards

by Rachel Pancare, studioD

As a parent, one of the primary ways you teach your children right from wrong is through consequences. Punishments and rewards are consequences that help children understand which actions are acceptable and which actions are not. Parents use punishments to discourage their children from repeating unwanted behaviors. Parents use rewards to reinforce the good behaviors they want to encourage. Punishments and rewards can have different impacts on your children over time. Finding a healthy balance between both parenting strategies may be an effective way to teach your children to make wise, independent choices.


Children need discipline to learn how to function in society. Different parents have different styles of discipline. Some parents scold their children to let them know they have done something wrong. When their child breaks a rule, they raise their voices or speak firmly to alert the child that she has made a mistake. However, yelling at a child may be less effective if you don't explain exactly what went wrong. For instance, if you simply shout, "What is the matter with you," you have not offered your child any feedback from which to grow. If you say, "Do not throw the ball in the house -- you could have hurt someone or broken something," you have given her information about what she did wrong and why. Shouting for the sake of shouting may make your child feel guilty but will not necessarily bring about the changes you eventually hope to see. According to Janet Lehman in her EmpoweringParents article "Tired of Yelling at Your Child? Stop Screaming and Start Parenting Effectively," "Yelling at a problem does not usually make it go away -- it only makes matters worse." In addition, scolding that includes name calling or other hurtful language may contribute to a child's low self-esteem. Almost all parents find themselves yelling occasionally. Monitoring why and how you are scolding your child can be an important part of analyzing the effectiveness of your parenting.


One way of punishing your children is to give them a penalty. For example, many parents send a child to her room when she has misbehaved. Other penalties might include forbidding a child to watch a television program or taking away a favorite toy or privilege. Penalties do let children know that they have erred. However, if a penalty does not match the crime committed, it may have less influence on future behavior. In other words, penalties that don't make sense to children and have nothing to do with what they did wrong, may not help them behave better next time. Rather than sending a child to her room for knocking a box of crackers all over the floor, make her clean up the crackers. Instead of banning a child from going outside because she hit her little brother, give her the language to apologize and require her to play a game with him or do something nice to make up for her mistake. When punishments make sense, children may have an easier time learning from them.

Physical Punishments

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry defines physical punishment (or corporal punishment) as "anything done to cause pain or discomfort in response to your child's behaviors." Some physical punishments include spanking, hitting or making a child eat soap. Many parents do not believe that physical punishment is an acceptable way to teach children right from wrong. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, physical punishment may influence short-term behavior but may lead to bullying behaviors, fear, low self-esteem and even further behavior problems. Some still believe that occasionally spanking a child when she misbehaves teaches her not to repeat the behavior.


Rewarding children is a positive way to teach your children right from wrong. When you reward your child, you offer support through language and/or some kind of special treat or gift to show your approval. A reward might be as small as a sticker or as big as a new toy. A reward might be the privilege of staying up later on a Saturday night or going out for ice cream after dinner. Make sure your children understand why they are being rewarded. In her Parents.com article "When to Reward Good Behavior," Claire Lerner writes, "You can nurture your child's sense of internal satisfaction with rewards, but they should be logically connected to the behavior." Offering your child a lollypop because he cleaned up his toys may not teach him responsibility. He may always expect a lollypop instead of cleaning up because it's the right thing to do. Instead, try letting him play longer the next time, so he sees that good things happen when you are responsible. As Lerner explains, the best, easiest reward is boosting your child's self-confidence by letting him know when he's done a good job and why.

About the Author

Rachel Pancare taught elementary school for seven years before moving into the K-12 publishing industry. Pancare holds a Master of Science in childhood education from Bank Street College and a Bachelor of Arts in English from Skidmore College.

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