Many parents use a system of rewards and punishments to help change children’s behavior. This idea has come down to us from behavioral psychology as part of what is known as “operant conditioning.” This phrase is simply the following:

Reinforcement means increasing the frequency or duration of desirable behavior. “If you go to bed on time for the whole week, I will give you a prize at the end of the week.”

Punishment means reducing the frequency of undesirable behavior by applying a negative consequence. “This is the third time this week that you came home with the car after ten o’clock. Next week, you are grounded.”

Extinction means reducing undesirable behavior by having no reaction at all. Your 6-year-old is being deliberately irritating in order to get a rise out of you. You have learned that if you simply ignore the behavior, he will stop.

Does it help?

Only Connect

In my experience, children do not respond to charts or prizes; they respond to a loving connection with their parents. A mother who is trying to potty train a child might use rewards to make the task more enjoyable for the child – it will increase his motivation. But the child complies with his mother because he loves her and wants to please her. A child being trained will not readily comply with a stranger trying to train him, no matter what prize is offered.

The key here is that the child loves his parents and wants to get closer to them by pleasing them.

An angry and rebellious teenager will not appreciate being lectured to or bribed, and certainly punishment will be completely destructive. Bribing or punishing will make him feel demeaned and manipulated, making him angrier and more distant. The only way to connect to him/her is to take the time to really listen and understand. Only then do we have a chance at being successful, because we are treating him/her with respect. Our children crave our understanding and our closeness.

This is true for younger children, also. When the parent allows a rewards chart to take the place of guiding and disciplining children through a loving connection to them, they, too, feel manipulated and demeaned. The way they demonstrate this is by becoming manipulative themselves. “If I make my bed for the whole week, will you buy me a new PlayStation?” Typically, parents feel outraged by this behavior; they are responding emotionally to the complete lack of respect that makes it possible for children to attempt to manipulate parents. However, the children are simply reflecting back what they are taking in. We may not realize it in the moment, but when we say to a child: “If you comply with my wishes, I will give you a prize,” this is in fact, manipulative. Therefore when a child responds in a manipulative way, it is a sign that his parents need to strengthen their emotional connection to him.

How Do I Do That?

Building a loving connection to each one of our children is an ongoing process. It is ongoing, not only because the child continues to grow and develop, but because we must continue to grow and develop as parents. It is helpful to keep the following two things in mind.

1) We are the parent

It has been my observation that many parents have trouble owning their parental authority. Authority is not control. It is the calm certainty that I am the adult here and you are the child. I have two responsibilities: First, to see to it that you grow up to with good character and with compassion for others (and for this we have the Torah), and second, to accomplish this in a loving way.

2) The child needs us to be the parent

If the child needs us to be the parent, the one he will listen to, and if he loves us, then why does he test us so much?

It is because he needs us to be the firm, loving authority that he tests us. When children sense vulnerability in us (usually before we do), they feel anxious. They need us to have a firm hand on the tiller but they are sensing that the ship is drifting. It is precisely where we feel most vulnerable, most at a loss, that they test us relentlessly. Testing limits, boundaries or the integrity of our word is a response born of (unconscious) anxiety. More than anything else, they need us to respond in a meaningful and loving way, and to do so with confidence. The more uncertain we feel, the more they test us, going to great lengths to get what they need from us. If we respond with anger (which is our anxiety), or if we abdicate (more of the same), negative patterns escalate. When this happens, we need to step back, take stock (getting help if necessary), and figure out what the child needs. Once we have arrived at this, we then need to work out how to give it over in the best and most loving way. It’s important to remember that correcting negative patterns in our relationships with our child is our responsibility, not the child’s.

Whoever said this would be easy?


Chana Mark, LCSW is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Suffern, NY. She sees children, adolescents, adults and couples. She can be reached at (845) 369-3416.