Rewarding and punishing children as a way of getting a child to behave comes at a steep price. Instead of rewarding and punishing your child, become familiar with what children are developmentally capable of and learn more effective interactive strategies. 

Using rewards and punishment as the only form of discipline for your child does not always work and even if it appears to, comes at a price. According to Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards, when an adult uses rewards and punishment to get a child to do something, they typically focus on enforcing a certain behavior without considering whether the behavior requested is developmentally appropriateDespite the external rewards or punishment offered, the child may not even be capable of complying. Even if he or she can comply, doing what the parent demands may cause the child to  miss out on valuable learning opportunities.

If your child does not initially respond the way you wish, you must consider the appropriateness of the request. You cannot  just offer increasing levels of rewards or punishment to get your child to behave a certain way. Kohn says that “control breeds the need for more control without addressing the underlying problem.” For example, I taught in a class where kids who fought were sent out of the block center where they were fighting and told, “Since you are fighting, leave the block area!” The teacher was not addressing the underlying problem which was that the children did not have any conflict negotiation skills. What the teacher really needed to do was give the kids suggestions for what to say during a fight. (See the articles in “Resolving Conflicts” category.)

Despite rewards and/or punishments, your child may not comply because the request is developmentally inappropriate. Perhaps the task is too difficult. Maybe his brain is not capable of the level of classification skills to put his toys away in the way that you would like him to. Your child might not understand the language you are using.  When you say “return the toy to the middle shelf”, perhaps he interprets the word “middle” differently from you.  A request could go against his biological limits. A four year old can not sit still in a grocery cart for forty five minutes.

Even if your child does comply with the rewards/punishment system, he or she is likely missing out on important learning opportunities. If you tell your child exactly what to wear, she won’t practice the skill of choosing her own clothes.  If you punish a child in order to teach him not to take a block from another, your child has missed out on an opportunity to learn how to positively interact with others.

If an adult wants a child to behave in certain ways, he must take into account the developmental stage of the child. He must also figure how to get the child to internalize appropriate behavior so he makes good choices when adults are not around to reward or punish.

For articles on how to get children to internalize appropriate behavior, see the links below or any article in the “Resolving Conflicts” category.


Kohn, A. (1999). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive 
plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes (2nd ed.). New York: Mariner Books.