Reporting on education: punishment and reward

La Petite Creche Article 4 regularly proposes articles on education and parenthood to enlighten both parents and curious people.

21st Century Parenthood, a Daily Challenge:

La Petite Ecole team offers us a collaborative approach in the art of dealing with our children’s frustrations and disobedience.

Today, in light of the neurosciences, we have more data that allow us to better understand the child and to adjust our concept of a caring education.

Various subjects are therefore on the agenda, questions are being asked, and parents sometimes feel they are losing their bearings.

Indeed, some topics arouse as much curiosity as mistrust. But when faced with these educational questions, even the most reticent parents pay close attention to all this information on the maturity of the brain, emotions, the use of punishment, etc., and they are not afraid to ask questions.

It is obvious today that parents are wondering how to reconcile a caring upbringing with a safe environment for their children. However, when they come up against children’s resistance in everyday life, they take refuge in familiar educational models that are not very effective.


Punishment and reward

It is true that two pillars of education are frequently used to obtain the child’s collaboration or obedience: punishment and reward.

Is it then possible to educate without punishment or reward? Is this the condition for a caring upbringing?

Children are no longer educated in the same way as in our childhood. But what a challenge to be a parent today! In addition to wanting to do the best with the little ones, we are afraid of being judged, of falling into the excess of hyper-parenting, of becoming an overprotective parent, a gaga parent, a too cool parent, a too strict parent, a permissive parent… and the list is nonexhaustive.

More and more parents are struggling to understand the difference between caring and permissive parenting.

However, it is necessary to notice that the child is a being in construction and to know the stages of his development in order to have age-appropriate expectations.

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Learning to differentiate the needs and desires of the child allows us to better accept and manage the legitimate frustration of this little being. It also helps each parent not to fall into permissiveness but to be, on the contrary, in understanding and supporting the child who does not have the capacity to self-regulate when he is going through emotional storms due to an unfulfilled desire.

With this information, it is suitable for each parent to see in a difficult situation and in the transgression of our children’s rules, a learning situation for themselves.

When your child behaves in a way that you do not approve of, we invite you to ask yourself the following question: Does your child not want to act properly or cannot do so? Does he or she have the ability to do so? In these cases, it is important for the child to perceive that the parent disagrees with his or her behaviour, not with the child himself/herself.


If we want to influence the child’s behaviour, we need to make the child think about the behaviour, not about himself or herself. A child who is punished feels rejected as a person.

“A person who has been punished is not thereby simply less inclined to behave in a given way; at best, he learns how to avoid punishment.” B. F. Skinner, psychologist, 1971.

But how did the penalty pass on the dock, with the reward at his side?

When we opt for punitive education, notice that the punishment acts on the behaviour that is perceived as annoying and not on the problem. The child’s behaviour is just the tip of the iceberg. It is advised to look at the underwater part to better understand, and therefore provide the appropriate response to the situation.

Punishment removes responsibility from the child, generates fear, shame and aggression, and above all the child mimes it: if he is punished, he will punish in his turn.

When a reassuring and firm framework is built with the child before the crisis, it allows the child to leave the spaces of power relationship to enter spaces of collaboration, and therefore of learning.


Authority with the child and not over the child: alternatives to punishment

Here are a few tips that may seem obvious but which help strengthen our relationship with the child:

  • Create collaboration with the child and thus help him/her to have confidence in him/her: to define rules together and to comply with them consistently;
  • Decide with the child, to explain and inform him/her of the consequences of his/her actions;
  • Let the child make decisions (autonomy);
  • Show empathy with the child’s difficulties;
  • Give positive and above all, clear instructions;
  • Put a name to the emotions felt;
  • Dedramatize the mistake by giving the child a chance to fix it;
  • Be aware of one’s adult posture: control one’s own emotions, identify one’s own needs and communicate them clearly to the child.


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Reward as an unsuitable motivation

And what about reward?

“Many people believe that it’s more humane to use rewards than punishments. But both of them I see as power over others, and Nonviolent communication is based on power with people.” Marshall B Rosenberg, Nonviolent communication, 2015.

When a child receives a reward for appropriate behaviour, he or she may later reproduce that behaviour, not because he or she has understood that the attitude was respectful, helpful or generous, but only to receive the reward.

The assessment that the adult makes when giving a reward, does not allow the child to be autonomous, responsible, or to develop a self-evaluation of his or her behaviour. (Marshall B Rosenberg, Nonviolent communication, 2015).

Should reward, then, be banned, as well as punishment?

  • Like punishment, reward represents power over the other, not with the other;
  • The reward neither teaches the child to be autonomous and responsible, nor does it generate any self-evaluation of his or her behavior;
  • The reward simply encourages appropriate behavior in order to receive something in exchange;
  • The reward focuses only on the outcome, when it is essential for the child to value his or her own efforts.

The child is motivated in two different ways: the internal self-motivation (the one we wish to nourish because it is the most beneficial for the good development of the child) and the external motivation that comes from the reward. Recent studies show that a child who receives a reward does not necessarily perform better in school than a child who does not receive a reward (Your brain on childhood, Gabrielle F. Principe, 2011). It is important to teach the child to do things for his or her own satisfaction.

However, it should be pointed out that the quality of the relationship between the parent and the child has a significant impact on the child’s brain and therefore on the way the child is and learns. It is entirely possible to improve this relationship through continuous, conscious work.

But since there are no perfect parents and no perfect methods, know that our children will understand us better when they have children of their own.


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