Discipline is a common point of contention and confusion in the parenting community. Everyone has an opinion on what works and what hurts. The problem is, people don’t often take into consideration that every child is different, every parent is different, and every child/parent relationship is different. Every system needs to be adjusted to what works for the parents and meet the children at a level where they understand. While some techniques have been proven to be more effective than others, the most important thing to remember is that there must be consistency and structure. A proper balance between rewards and consequences allows a child to understand what is expected from them, learn that positive behavior earns benefits, and that negative behavior has natural consequences.
Rewarding positive behavior is frequently used as it teaches a basic understanding of the natural result of doing what is expected of you and eventually can transfer over to building a healthy work ethic. It motivates children to follow rules, help around the house, be kind, etc. The frequent criticism of reward systems is that they are basically bribes and teaching entitlement; however, when utilized properly it does exactly the opposite. A proper reward system will have natural and appropriate rewards to actions that are expected and teaches children to work for things they want. This means that behavior that is expected naturally such as using respect, being kind, being responsible for their belongings, going to school, doing homework and such are rewarded by natural rewards such as increased time watching television or family game time. Of course people want to play games with someone who is nice and you have more time for fun activities if you do your homework faster. These are natural rewards. Other tasks, such as doing chores, can be rewarded more directly. For example, earning a dollar for vacuuming the house, earning beads to put in a jar that can be traded in for a prize, or working towards a toy that they have been wanting. This teaches children that they need to work for what they want. Reward systems can be as simple or as complex as you want to make them. There can be levels of rewards, visual charts, levels of earning, and more. Make the process fun and the children will want to participate.
While proper reward systems encourage good behavior and responsibility, they don’t necessarily solve all problem behaviors. Children will be children and they will act out. This is where the balance comes in with consequences. Just as with rewards, consequences should be natural and appropriate to the behavior they are a result of. They should be given out fairly and consistently to reduce confusion. Natural and balanced consequences basically means that the punishment fits the crime. For example, if the recurrent problem is that the child will not stop playing video games when asked, the consequence is losing video game time the next day and having to earn it back. Just like rewards, this can be made into a system that involves child participation. A chart of rules and consequences can help a child regulate behavior and remind them what the consequence is before they earn it, helping them to make better choices. It also helps them to have a more active role and reduces arguments when a consequence is enforced. If a child can check a chart, they know what is coming verses a random consequence being given in the moment. Clear and consistent consequences teach a child to self-regulate behavior.
Finding the balance between these two methods will make discipline in the traditional sense less needed and create a healthy structure that allows for growth and reduces acting out and the need for arguments. The better the rewards system, the less the consequences should need to be used. The better the consequence system, the less it should need to be used. Structure and discipline will work differently for all types of kids and households and it is vital to find the right balance for your family. There is a good amount of trial and error involved in finding this balance and its important to involve the children in this process to help them understand that they have a role, leaving some sense of independence and control. Surprisingly, children are great at finding appropriate rewards that motivate them and appropriate consequences. Ultimately, the process of creating this balance should be fun and interactive, building the relationship and trust between parent and child, and improving behavior all at the same time.