Motivational Parenting: Fostering the Behavior You Want with Fewer Rewards and Punishments

September 2, 2018 by Kate Nooner, PhD, LP

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Common questions that I hear from parents center around the ideas of children not listening or talking back.

Parents ask: Why won’t my child do what I ask? Why is my child always arguing with me? How can I stop the back talk?

The short answer is we can’t stop it completely. The longer answer is we can improve a lot of it but it takes consistent work on our part. Why is this hard for parents to do? First, it is because as parents, we are already working so hard day in and day out for our children. And second, because our natural urge when our children are being disrespectful is to yell and/or “lay down the law” even though the endless punishment/reward cycle often fails to solve the problem.

Often when I talk with parents, they refer to “the good old days” when children listened immediately. They ask, what is wrong with things today that children don’t do that anymore. My answer to that is that things are actually better now. Yes, better even with more back talk. Why is that?

In the past, it was much more common for parents to use harsh verbal and physical punishment with children, much of which is considered child abuse today because we know how damaging it is to child development. Through the use of fear and intimidation, children were more likely to “fall in line.” However, that came at a steep price. Specifically, it came with poorer parent-child relationships and lifelong emotional and psychological scars.

As a society, we came to realize that to raise healthy, strong children and to have families that were loving and connected, we needed to abandon the use of fear and intimidation with our children. The good news is that in doing so, children and families have flourished. That is not to say families are problem free but rates of violence in families have decreased dramatically and school graduation rates have increased substantially since these harsh punishment practices have stopped.

With harsh punishment off the table, what do parents do now to increase children’s listening and decrease misbehavior? Should they reward? Should they punish appropriately? What should be done?

The answer really lies in modeling the behavior you want to see yourself (i.e., Walk the walk. You can’t ask your child not to yell if you are often yelling.) and taking steps to motivate this behavior in your child instead of rewarding or punishing.

How do you motivate?

Instead of saying: if you pick up your toys, then you can ride your bike.

Say: I am really looking forward to going on a bike ride with you after your toys are picked up. Let’s get started with putting them up.

Instead of saying: You better play in the pool nicely or you are going to get a time out.

Say: I can see you are feeling wild. I’m going to take you out of the pool because it is not safe. Then we’ll go to calm down.

No matter how difficult or out of control a situation may seem, there are ways parents can respond to motivate appropriate behavior. In motivating, parents can foster positive behavior that is lasting in a way that rewards and punishments cannot.  The difficult part is that when our emotions are high in these challenging situations with our children, our natural instinct as parents is to engage in threatening or punishing behavior, even though it does not work in the long term.

How do we break the cycle?

There are books for pre-school and elementary age children like Heather Turgeon’s Now Say This: The Right Words to Solve Every Parenting Dilemma.

And for middle- and high-school age children like Anthony Wolf’s I’d Listen to My Parents if They’d Just Shut Up: What to Say and Not to Say When Parenting Teens.

To have solutions that are tailored exactly for your family’s values and circumstances, don’t hesitate to contact the Chrysalis Center and schedule a consultation with me, Dr. Kate Nooner, or one of our other clinicians who have parenting expertise.

You are a great parent and you can do it!


Dr. Kate Brody Nooner is a licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology at UNCW. She also holds an adjunct appointment at Duke University and is the principal investigator of NIH-funded grants aimed at reducing child and adolescent trauma and preventing alcoholism.

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