Rewards, Consequences, Punishment…What’s the Best Way to Parent Teens and College Kids?

A simpler what to think of this post is “How to Change Behavior.” That’s really the primary function of a reward or consequence.

There are more books on how to change kids’ behavior than just about any other topic. Ironically (or sadly), they all say the same thing. Punishment does not work; rewards work consequences for choices work. How can this be? Let’s kick the tires on the history and research behind this. If you hate history and research, jump ahead a few pages to the ‘how-to’ portion.

Context: Let’s Look Back First

For thousands of years before the Industrial Revolution, children were assets in an agrarian system (most humans up to that point farmed). We had lots and lots of kids since a) children were relatively cheap labor, b) most died during childbirth or as children and c) adult children became financial support systems for parents – the more children parents had, the more financial support and broader financial base.

In 1916, Congress passed the the first federal child labor law. However, pressure from big companies forced the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the law two years later. Following the Great Depression adults had become so desperate for jobs that they would work for the same wage as children.

In 1938, President Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which limited most forms of child labor (but excluded agricultural work). This was the beginning of our modern view of children needing protection, love and nurturing. A pendulum was set in motion.

In 1946, another revolution took place. Dr. Benjamin Spock published his first book titled Dr. Spock’s Baby & Child Care (also titled The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care). Though a medical doctor by education and training, Dr. Spock’s books put children at the center of parenting rather than the adults. He encouraged responding to and engaging with babies and children rather than ignoring which was the advice up to then. The pendulum’s momentum builds.

Finally, we add in money and work. In the early 80’s, adults were working more, making more money and, as a result, needing to leave their children at home (the so-called ‘latch-key’ kids). Children would get dropped off from the bus and walk into an empty home. Cartoons and snacks were gorged upon till mom and dad came home. Guilt stricken parents with extra cash (…or more accurately extra room on their new credit cards) went and bought Ataris, Nintendos and the new wave of electronics and toys for kids. We were now descending into entitlement. About this time, school districts were changing punishment in schools (no more spankings).

How can old-school grandma and grandpa who raised 15 kids have been so wrong? All the kids turned out great, right? Well, let’s break this down a bit. First of all, it was a different time. No devices, internet and certainly little to no advertising directed towards children. All marketing was targeting stay at home mothers.

I also want to point out that most of these old school versions of parenting created some pretty nasty problems which is why the fastest growing demographics for substance abuse treatment are the Baby Boomers and the elderly. Old school punishment, drinking habits, and expectations led to a generation that was not well-equipped to handle stressors.

Now for the Goods

Here are the best ways to change behavior and encourage healthy choices. I’ve taught these, studied these and continue to stand by these effective strategies:

Commit to the Path

  1. Drawn into accidentally energizing and rewarding negativity leads to a battle – Be intentional about being positive
  2. Intentionally energize and nurture success
  3. Provide a true and deep consequence when a rule is broken – something that is proportional to the infraction
  4. Reward for what you want to see.
  5. Ignore behaviors you want see less of.

Establish Expectations and Boundaries

  1. Detailed rules/expectations and no grey area – kids are MASTER negotiators and litigators
  2. Chores and Expectations – daily schedule or list
  3. Bonus behaviors – Things you wish to increase
  4. Menu of privileges – Can include anything beyond basic needs
  5. Extend Structure – At school, friends house, soccer practice, etc.

Consequences

  1. Relentless pursuit of positives: Biased towards seeing your kid’s great choices.
  2. Strictness and Clarity: Be like a videogame – if a rule is broken, a consequence is administered no matter how you are feeling.
  3. No Leaking: Accidentally rewarding behavior with negative energy but they contribute to your kid behaving badly.
  4. Finite: Consequences do not expand and are tied to a specific behavior/event.

Rewards

  1. Catch them doing things right: When I run parent groups I ask parents to list the amount of things they caught their kids doing wrong in the last month. Easy list to make. Then I ask them to list three things they caught them doing right. Much harder. We are programmed to find faults in this attempt to modify kids behaviors towards compliance – making bad choices is the loud, obvious indication they are out of line. We we fail to see are the million little choices they make each day which are well-thought out and positive. Focus on those. Highlight those. “Hey Julian, I noticed you put the dishes away without anyone asking you to do it. Great job.” …And then move on. No need to get mushy and turn it into an Oprah interview about thoughts and feelings.
  2. Types of rewards: Your eye contact and facial expression are huge rewards for younger kids. Rather than giving kids an iPhone or XBox, I encourage parents to give time on each device or toy as a reward. Have you ever kept the car you rented at the airport? No, you paid them to borrow it for a specific amount of time and then returned it. There are few instances where I encourage parents to buy something to give to their kids as a reward. Time, praise, and access to cool things is often way better for everyone.
  3. Negotiating: If you find yourself constantly reminder, encouraging, begging, etc. for you kids to do A so they get access to B, you are violating your own rules. You are now negotiating.
  4. List of Rewards: In 2007, one parent I was working with could not understand why their teenage son was not motivated by the reward of time on their Blackberry (same year iPhone introduced). If they are not doing chores, getting good grades or engaging in the behavior you want to see, your rewards may be incongruent with their desires. Ask them to tell you what they’re into. Maybe its an allowance, money for iTunes or they want to borrow the car.

And Lastly…Own Your Home

This is a hard one for parents (… and most kids) but until responsibility for the mortgage, bills and everything that makes a home function is shared among all family members – parents rule. There is no such thing as the ‘kid’s’ room. Everything, every room, every toy, every piece of clothing is the parents’. Great parents allow their kids to use those things. Remember…privilges are not rights and kids get to own their choices, not their TV.

Good Luck.