How To Discipline Your Children Without Rewards Or Punishment

Many parents are moving towards “gentle parenting”, where they choose not to use rewards (sticker charts, lollies, chocolates, TV time as “bribes”) and punishments (taking away “privileges”, time-out, smacking) to encourage good behaviour, but encourage good behaviour for the sake of doing the right thing.

Gentle parents argue that to offer rewards and punishments overrides a child’s natural inclination towards appropriate behaviour by teaching them to behave in certain ways purely to receive a reward, or to avoid punishment.

Mother scolding child image via Shutterstock

What is discipline?

For most people it would seem impossible to discipline without rewards and punishments. However, it depends on your understanding of “discipline”. Discipline always has a silent “self” in front of it because it’s about controlling yourself.

So, in the case of parenting, it’s about helping children learn to manage themselves, their feelings, their behaviour and their impulses. We want our children to develop a sound moral compass, to sort behaviours, impulses and feelings into “appropriate” and “inappropriate” and be able to justify judgements about their choices.

When the term discipline is used, it is often in a sense that implies punishment. This meaning is implied because discipline is associated with a behaviourist view of how humans learn. Behaviourism is associated with conditioning, a process whereby learning is an association between behaviour and good or bad outcome, just like in Pavlov’s dog experiment.

However, behaviourism is used less and less because human behaviour is seen as more complex than a simple rewards/punishments model suggests. Behaviourism is also problematic because it implies people behave in desirable ways only to secure rewards or minimise punishments.

We don’t want our children to behave in a way that’s desirable just because they might get something or get into trouble if caught. We want our children to do the right thing because they know it’s right, and because they want to do right.

Motivating children intrinsically not extrinsically

Behaviourism teaches children to look for external motivations to behave in a desirable way. It has been said that rewards and punishments override a child’s natural inclination to do the right thing because they rely on extrinsic (external things that are used to motivate us) rather than intrinsic (a motivator that is internal and usually a feeling of well-being that comes over us when we choose to do something) motivators.

There is a great deal of research into workplaces showing that people do not perform better when they’re offered what are known as extrinsic motivators. Surprisingly, that includes money, a better office, a better title or certificates.

Workplace research suggests that people will behave in desirable ways in their workplace when they feel happy. People feel happy at work when they feel valued and they feel valued when they have control over their life.

Control over life is called agency. Most of the research reveals that people who have agency are happier and more productive.

Similarly, in children, agency is the ability to have some control over what they do. If we think about it, children have very little control over their lives. Their parents or caregivers determine most of their day – when they eat, what they wear, when they can go out, when they stay in, when they nap, just about everything.

While there are serious safety concerns with children, we can soften our approach and give them more agency over their lives. The effect is likely to be happier children who feel more in control and are more likely to work with us to ensure everyone is happy.

But, we can’t give children free rein, it’d be mayhem!

You are probably reading this and thinking, in horror, that we can’t trust children to have control over their lives. After all, they’d play with knives, set fire to themselves/the dog/the house, play with the gas hobs or run onto the road.

Children need limits. They need to know what’s safe (playing in the safety of their yard) and what’s unsafe (knives, stoves, roads, immolating the dog). Telling a child they can’t do something unsafe is not the same as punishing them. Instead, you can follow these steps:

  1. Stop the behaviour. If the child is about to run onto the road, scoop them up and hold them. If the child is about to hurt the dog, hold their hand and remove the weapon, if there is one. If the child is about to touch the hotplate move them away. If they’re being rude, you need to stop them too.

  2. Say something along the lines of “[action] is unsafe, I won’t let you do [action]”. To use the running on the road example, you would say, “Running onto the road is dangerous; I won’t let you run onto the road.” Or, if they’re rude, you can say, “What you just said was hurtful, I won’t let you be hurtful to me/your sibling/someone else.”

  3. They might cry, prepare for that. And that’s okay. I cry when I get a speeding ticket, but it doesn’t stop the offence being recorded.

  4. If they are crying, try to listen to them and reassure them we’ve heard they’re upset. After all, they’ve just had their agency compromised by our concern for their safety. You could say something along the lines of, “I hear you have some big feelings about my stopping you from [whatever it was].” If it was the hotplate example, you could say, “I hear that you really wanted to see what the hotplate felt like, but I can’t let you touch it as it will burn you.” If they were being rude, you could say, “I know you don’t mean to be hurtful, but saying things like that can make people sad.”

We need to help our children develop discipline, but we can do this without compromising their sense of self and their agency. It is about following the golden rule of life, “How would I want to be treated if I was in my child’s position?”

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Rebecca English is a Lecturer in Education at Queensland University of Technology


    Seems like every few years the new "how to teach your children" rules are wheeled out and the shaming begins. First of all, what diet is the kid on? Because I can assure you, that if the child is eating cereal from a box, no matter how innocuous, it's got a butt load of sugar in it. Same goes with most processed food and processed food is a very large part of a lot of children's diet these days. Solve that problem first before you try this new age, works in a perfect family, trope. Don't forget too, you have to have the patience to keep this up for nearly two decades!

    Last edited 02/11/15 9:13 am

      The article was presented as an alternative approach to motivating children to behave a certain way, not as the 'how to teach your children rule book' and contained no shaming from what I could see. While I agree with the sentiment of changing the priority of dietary intake for children in the 'raise your children conversation' in general, from the evidence/argument you've given, I'm not convinced sugar is the behavior changer you are making it out to be, or that it is the most important part of the dietary change that needs to happen among our young folk, happy to read the research your basing your argument on though.

        The article was presented as an alternative approach to motivating children to behave a certain wayWhat part of my comment did you see as an alternative? It was a simple observation that there is no one way to bring up your kids. Not even in a perfect world. As for the sugar, there is a myriad of information that suggests that it "is" a major part of the current problems with kids diets, including behaviour. It's not hard to find the information, just look it up for yourself.

        Last edited 02/11/15 3:47 pm

          What part of my comment did you see as an alternative? The article was an alternative, your comment was not.

            I don't want to get into a stupid he says they said argument, but my comment didn't need to be an alternative! It was an observation, an alternative was not needed or implied! Just leave it there dude, before it gets silly.

    "After all, they’ve just had their agency compromised"

    I think that line pretty much sums up the worth of this article.

    My agency was compromised by reading it.

    You are probably reading this and thinking, in horror, that we can’t trust children to have control over their lives. After all, they’d play with knives, set fire to themselves/the dog/the house, play with the gas hobs or run onto the road.
    Actually, I was reading this thinking, in horror, that any child raised this way is going to be a self-centred arsehole when (if?) they move out of home for the first time.

    Actually, that's pretty close to how I was raised (I did get my Nintendo DS taken away once because I hadn't done my homework and the teacher called my parents, and I did get scolded for doing things that I knew were wrong) and I'm not a "self-centered arsehole" (or so I like to think). I'm respectful towards others, and in my free time, I do volunteer work. For reasons unrelated to my upbringing, I suffer from bipolar disorder, and I concede that I might be less mindful of others when I'm having a low, but that's basically undetectable to people who don't know me well, and often even to those who do. The key to raising a child this way is, I think, to explain to it why something they do is bad in a way the child will understand. Children are not completely beyond reason. If the child understands, it usually won't try to do that thing again. Likewise, you can always encourage your child to do something good, but don't force it, because if you do, it will seem like a chore. With food, für example, my parents always encouraged me to at least try everything, and they encouraged me to eat my veggies, but they never made me finish my food, especially whenI didn't like it. As a result, I've never felt that vegetables were this gross thing you had to eat because it was healthy - they were just a normal part of a meal for me. I would often request vegetarian meals, and to this day I enjoy some nice veggies at least as much, if not more, than fries or meat or most other foods that most children usually want. I'm not saying there's no time and place for rewards of scoldings, but the reward will be just as great if a child only gets it after doing something good out of their own volition, and reasonably explaining to your child why they were wrong in doing something should always come before scoldings or punishments (because if they understand why they were wrong, they'll understand that they deserve to make up for it, while just yelling at them or imposing some kind of punishment will only make them learn how to hide their bad behavior from you)

    The comments and responses sound like a lot of "we were punished/rewarded as we grew up, so therefore it must be OK, and we should keep doing it", which is all very fine and a great way of never ever learning or advancing. That's the same reason that young officers in military institutions are regularly raped, bullied and tortured by their older compatriots. The same reason lots of bad things are replicated generation after generation. "It happened to me, it should happen to the next lot".

    This article is expressing current thinking in the field, backed up by stupid stuff like - you know, science, research and evidence. So I don't think it's a good idea to just slam it as being stupid and point out that since it's not the same thing that happened to you it must be rubbish; it doesn't agree with the way you'd like to see the world, so you're dismissing it out of hand. Like a climate change denier.

    It's hard to accept changes in child raising because the way we are raised is what produced us, and very few of us think that there is anything inherently wrong in the way that we are. And there probably isn't; but that doesn't mean it was the best way.

    I encourage you to revisit your own prejudices and contemplate ways you can incorporate this kind of stuff into any child raising you do. Even if you end up not applying it, if nothing else it will increase your mindfulness and self-awareness about the decisions you make when you punish or reward your children.

    Oh and @MixedEmotions? "Google it" is not the same as citing an actual study. You should Google that. If you're going to argue that sugar is the main cause of misbehaviour, surely you've read a real scientific article somewhere that you can cite? If it's so easy to "Google" it, it should be easy for you to do so to back up your own opinion. If it's too hard to use to back up your own opinion, and you have to make your readers do the research on their own, then maybe you should have saved us all the trouble and not presented your unsubstantiated opinion in the first place. I'm not saying that there is no such study, just that if you're going to make the claim, then back it up yourself - otherwise don't get narky when people call you on it.

    Last edited 03/11/15 12:33 pm

    And here I was thinking they'd be something I could use on toddlers in this article.

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