By Dr. Carlos Gonzalez
Medical Director at CCGC
Punishment, Rewards, Incentives, Bribery
There are many who believe that punishing kids is the best way to change their behavior. Parents of kids who are not doing well frequently come in and say things like, “We have tried EVERYTHING and it doesn’t work,” or “We have taken away his phone, his tablet, his internet access, his video game system and he still insists on [you fill in the blank here]”.
But if punishment worked, or if punishment had any good long-lasting effect, the jails would be empty, or at least no one would come back once they were released. And we all know that’s not the case. In fact, studies from the Bureau of Justice have found high rates of recidivism (folks that keep coming back) among released prisoners. One study tracked more than 400,000 prisoners in 30 states after their release from prison in 2005. The researchers found that:
· Within three years of release, more than two-thirds (69%) of released prisoners were rearrested.
· Within five years of release, more than three-quarters (77%) of released prisoners were rearrested.
· Of those prisoners who were rearrested, more than half (57%) were arrested by the end of the first year.
· Property offenders were the most likely to be rearrested, with 82% of released property offenders arrested for a new crime compared with 77% of drug offenders, 74% of public order offenders and 71% of violent offenders.
It is not my intent to argue with the penal system. That would require a whole other piece of writing. But I need to highlight an important point: Punishment (some people feel better saying “consequences”) is sometimes necessary, but it does not do much to change behavior in a way that we like.
Punishment by a parent will change some behavior. You hear all kinds of stories from parents, usually starting with, “If I did that when I was a kid, my parent would have ….” And it usually ends up with “… I never did that again.” But my only reply can be, “You are here because maybe you have an idea that the way your parent handled it may not have been the best way; maybe a severe punishment is not the kind of memory you want to leave your kid with.”
So, what will work better? What works better for you or other adults? Picture this:
You are at your job, one hour before quitting time, and your boss comes to you and says, “I need you to take care of these 6 things before you leave, or you’re fired.” You need your job, and you will probably grumble and curse under your breath, but chances are you will do what he asked. But you will not feel so good about your boss, and next time you see him walking your way at the end of the day, you will probably hide or pretend you are very busy.
Now, picture the same situation, with your boss asking you to do these things at the end of the day, but instead of threatening to fire you, he actually says, “and if you do this, I’ll give you half a day off with
pay.” Again, you will get the job done, but the big difference is that you will be happy with your boss, and the next time you see him coming, you will make yourself available to pitch in.
If this makes sense to you, then find a way to make it happen with your child. Reasonable incentives are not bribes. They don’t have to be big – they should not break your budget. But they need to be consistent, and they need to be realistic.
Another work example: Your boss tells you, “You’re not working well, and you won’t get a raise until you work better.” This is not a very helpful statement, and will not improve your morale or your relationship with your boss. You will be forced to ask, “What is it exactly that I’m not doing well, and what are the things I need to do to earn my raise?”
What you wish your boss would say is, “I need you to improve your performance by learning more about procedure X and helping department A in accomplishing task B. If that happens by next quarter, I’ll give you a raise of X dollars per hour.” The phrase “working better,” or (with kids) “behaving better”, is not helpful. They (and you) need some sense of working on concrete things that lead to concrete rewards.
Please understand that everything I have written so far is just meant to give you an orientation to the approach. You will have to work with a therapist skilled in these things to tailor the approach to your child. But that will be easier if you see the reasoning behind it.
I wish you the best in this worthwhile endeavor.
-Dr. Carlos Gonzalez