Navigating the delicate waters of rewards and punishment

Our junkyard – where cars get sent to as punishment (and for some reason, a pig and sheep too)

It began in the most mundanely boring and predictable way possible. As parents, we started punishing bad behavior with time outs and rewarding good behavior with praises, and even more hugs and kisses than we did usually. Then somehow, I am not sure how or when, we started giving incentives (material objects as presents) randomly and for no reason. Because we love our child and because we want his every thought or desire fulfilled, we basically fell into the classic trap of giving our child more than he wants, expects, or even knows to ask for.

TJ loves trains and trucks immensely. He has tens of Thomas the Train trains, tracks, and even a train table (a generic one, not the official Island of Sodor table), including bridges, tunnels, a station and such. He didn’t ask for any of this. We got all these as hand-me-down loans from his cousins and because we didn’t want to spoil him too much too soon, at first we only got him a small track and 4 engines. Then as the new baby started demanding more attention, so that he doesn’t feel ignored, we got him more engines. Gradually, he got the railroad crossing, the bridge, more tracks, and so on.

Calling it alleviating parental guilt or whatever else but the joy and excitement on the face of our child every time he got a new engine or new addition to his train island, filled our own hearts with joy. After all, he was generally a great kid and he deserved all that he got.

In between, he kept getting stickers for good behavior (dump truck, back hoe, and train stickers of course). We even bought him a Lego Duplo Tow Truck to encourage his love for tow trucks. He got a couple of Melissa & Doug Reusable Sticker pads that provided endless entertainment to him (and us).

We partly bought him these new toys because up until then, we had rarely bought him anything. Almost all his toys were, again, hand me downs and they were more than any little boy would ever need or want. So we figured, now that he has actually shown an interest in specific genres of toys, we could buy him those with which he would really enjoy playing.

Soon these random and unprovoked presents became the norm. We didn’t do it so often as to spoil him rotten to the extent that he started demanding them for no reason. However, we did end up inevitably setting up a precedent for giving new toys without a rhyme or reason. Of course, we quickly stopped this gift giving practice once we realized how crazy that was and worried about what we might be teaching him about getting stuff that he did not particularly deserve or work for. By then he had come to anticipate surprises of the material variety and because we would always ask him to close his eyes before giving him his presents, we sometimes got to see this which was cute:


Eventually, we started framing incentives like toys as priced objects that we had the power to take away if he were to misbehave. This was either in addition to or separate from time-outs. Because they could be taken away, he quickly learned that if he were to behave well, clean up all his toys, not make a mess of them by putting them all in his dump truck and then dump them all over the living room, not throw them around while in the throes of a meltdown, not throw food on the floor or put feet on the table or scream for no reason, or spill milk all over the kitchen floor, he may get more “surprises” or at least the current toys won’t be taken away.

Today, completely unprovoked and out of nowhere, he started cleaning up his toys, put away the bags of diapers that he had gotten out of a big Costco box and strewn around, placed all his books back in the books-basket and when all was done, he went and quietly sat in the little space between his chair and bag of library books with his back to the wall, and covered his eyes with his hands. What an adorable little sight! Except, we didn’t have any presents to give him [not exactly true, I always buy cheap little presents to give as bribes so at any time, when I’ve simply had enough and just don’t have the energy to fight or argue with him, I do pull the “I have a surprise for you, if you…” card] that we had planned for.

In the end, I did give him a backhoe sticker so he feels like he was rewarded for good behavior. In my limited reading of rewards and punishment, I have learned that rewarding good behavior wins over punishing bad behavior (Belsky, 2008). For older kids, internalization of values that are key to that individual child’s identity are essential as motivating factors because they lead to good behavior (Mascolo, 2015).

For us, it is a trial and error. I try really hard to redirect his negative energies into something related but more preferable to me. For example, when he gets upset after I turn his dump trucks and trains videos off (that I let him watch while I put his sister to nap) and starts crying and throwing things around, I immediately pick him up and sit him down on my lap and talk about the dump trucks at his preschool. He calms down and starts communicating to me about how he played with them.

I have also tried the distraction method effectively where I introduce an entirely new and of interest-to-him topic/activity which takes his mind off whatever was making him upset or angry. For example, when I feel like he has had enough at home when he starts throwing his trains all over the carpet or dumping his books, I ask him if he’d like to go and water the plants which he loves.

It is my hope that eventually, we are able to transition him into appreciating experiences as incentives instead of material objects. We have a very special – Thomas the Train railway ride planned for him next weekend and he knows that he has to behave well and be kind to his sister the whole week if we are to go otherwise, mommy and daddy will cancel the visit. We this successfully with a trip to Capitola Beach too and Aaron reinforces this in the stories he tells him at dinner time everyday.

Nothing works all the time and even the things that worked once or twice may never work a third time. We are learning along the way. I sometimes read about parenting styles and behavioral modifications but ultimately, what works for us is whatever is working that day, could be an old, tried and tested method we had archived away but pulled out, out of desperation or a brand new strategy that I just read about. Our poor firstborn experimental child!

Published by Suchitra

I am a former Communication Studies professor turned stay-at-home-mom (SAHM) to two multiracial kids. I write about my adventures in parenting and living a multicultural life with my family. Blogger at: Follow me: @thephdmama

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