I rarely use rewards and punishments with children, because I’m not training a bunch of performing seals with whom I can’t communicate: I’m teaching children, who are merely small human beings, to behave in socially and culturally acceptable ways. Most, if not all, children genuinely want to learn these things. Not because they don’t want to get in trouble, or because they want to get a sticker, but because of a deep-seated (and probably hard-wired, if the behaviour of other social animals is anything to go by) desire to be accepted by their peers and authority figures. Children work hard to learn what their culture perceives as “right” and “wrong”, and are punished adequately by their consciences as these develop over the early years.
I try hard not to speak to children in a manner which would be unacceptable between adults. This is important for two reasons: firstly, they’re mini-humans, and all humans deserve respect. Secondly, and maybe more relevantly, children will learn how to speak to others – and you – by listening to you and copying your speech and tone. This is the primary way children learn most of their social and cultural behaviours. They won’t remember you explaining why they shouldn’t take another child’s toy, but they most certainly WILL remember that you shouted at them when they dropped their spoon.
This concept of providing appropriate speech and action for children to copy – called “modelling” in education-speak – is actually the basis of the pressure from early childhood researchers to stop parents from smacking their children. It’s really simple, and I can add weight to the research findings with many anecdotes from my classrooms. If you smack your child when they misbehave, you get the result you want (maybe), but you also get an unwanted (I hope!) result: your child learns that you solve your problems with violence. This often flows through to other parts of their life, where a “smack” from one child to another – or to their teacher or parent – is suddenly charged with emotionally loaded meanings.
So what SHOULD we do, if rewards and punishments aren’t appropriate? We set clear boundaries and expectations for behaviour. We explain the REASONS for the boundaries and expectations. We remind the child firmly, calmly and consistently when she steps outside them, and express our disappointment in the behaviour (NOT the child). If there is an especially taboo behaviour (such as violence) which the child is having difficulty controlling, judicious use of rewards and punishments can get on top of it quickly to prevent anyone being hurt (including the child himself). But as soon as the storm has passed, return to gentle, calm and firm. Most of all, we remain respectful towards the child and her struggle to manage her emotions and impulses – because after all, there are a whole lot of bridges being built in that brain (millions of connections and reconnections and lost connections per day in early childhood) and it’s tough staying in control all the time. I know I don’t always manage it, and I bet you don’t either. Forgive lapses with compassion and grace. They’ll learn to do them same for themselves and others as time goes on, and you’ll be on the way to raising a moral, empathetic human.