Balancing Incentives and Consequences

As parents, we can feel as though we are walking an impossible tightrope. Are we better off incentivizing or punishing? What is the appropriate balance between them?

The truth is that we can all-too-quickly move towards the consequences end of the spectrum. For example:

  1. We begin by asking: ‘Please can you tidy your room’
  2. Then we transition into accusing: ‘You never tidy your room!’
  3. If we aren’t getting the desired response, we resort to threatening: ‘If you don’t tidy your room, then you can forget the party on Saturday!’

At this point, the consequence has been introduced, and it’s associated – in the mind of the parent and child – with exerting authority or control. In other words, we are reminding the child that we hold the balance of power in the relationship.

It is certainly true that we live in a world where there are consequences for unacceptable behavior, and children need to understand this. If they don’t discover this at home, they will certainly do so at school.

However, we must recognize that if we resort to control-based strategies on a regular basis, children will always develop strategies for resisting control, just as we did at their age. They can exert their own power in a number of ways, which include:

  • Withdrawing, being sullen, being monsyllabic
  • Lying or witholding information
  • Having angry outbursts
  • Showing outright defiance
  • Reducing effort with their school work
  • Hanging out with friends they know you disapprove of
  • Avoiding responsibility by always having a justification or excuse

As parents, threatening the withdrawal of privileges takes less effort than listening or endlessly negotiating. And yet, if we go down the punishment route too often, our children will find ways to get their own back, and these will hurt.

In some situations, compliance is the best response we’ll get. But when we comply, there is little ownership or responsibility involved. Are there are more effective strategies we can deploy?

1. Be clear about where the problem lies, and with whom.

We often think the child has the problem. But on 2nd thoughts, the child often doesn’t see what the issue is. We are the ones with the expectations and we have a problem with their behaviour. Our issue is that the child doesn’t see things our way. This is worth bearing in mind, since it might lead us to communicate in a different way. Perhaps our job is to explain why it’s a problem for us, instead of blaming the child.

For example, there is difference between these 2 statements:

a)    ‘You aren’t working for your exams and you’re going to fail them’.

b)    ‘I’m disappointed that you aren’t working harder for your exams, and I’m concerned that you’re going to fail them’.

What you’re communicating in the 2nd statement is that you have a problem with your child’s level of application for their exams.

2. Provide acknowledgment where it’s due.

It’s easier to provide criticism than acknowledgment. We tend to think of incentives as being treats, monetary rewards or special privileges; but praise can also be a very strong incentive for a child.

Of course, we don’t want this to be manipulative or vacuous. But if we get into the habit of praising behavior that works, our children may be more willing to listen when we are disappointed.

3. Understand the motivations of your child.

Both children and adults are motivated in different ways. For example, one of your children may be motivated by stability and structure, while her brother is motivated by competition and winning.

It’s easy to fall into the mistake of thinking that – because we are personally motivated in a certain way – our children will automatically have the same motivations, but this isn’t necessarily true at all. When you understand this fact, it has a bearing on how you may choose to incentivize your children.

 4. Make consequences the exception, not the rule.

If you do threaten the ultimate sanction – whether it’s removing their X-Box or grounding them – don’t make threats to your child that you aren’t prepared to follow through on.

If you are constantly repeating dire threats, your child will zone out or resent you. This will only give rise to a new complaint that they don’t listen to you and don’t respect your authority. Once trust and respect is gone, parenting becomes hard work.

5. Involve your child in resolving the problem. 

Where you have a problem, seek to involve the child or teenager in the resolution of the problem. There’s a difference between saying:

a) ‘You’ve got exams coming up and you’re not going out. That’s the end of it!’

b) ‘What’s your schedule between now and your exams? If you can talk me through it, we can discuss whether there are times you can go out.’

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