Are You a Carrot or a Stick?

Monday, October 4, 2010

A few days ago I got into a discussion with a good friend of mine regarding how we/ I discipline our children. The conversation stemmed from my asking for advice after my little man had a rough few days at school and I realized about halfway through, that we just came from two very different point of views on this issue. My good friend was of the mindset that kids are supposed to act in a certain way, and when they don't it is your job as a parent to reinforce the rules. Her position was that the taking away of privileges and a basic "this is not allowed attitude" is all that is needed to essentially keep the little ones in line (that and a way to tune out all of the crying that will inevitably follow.)  While I agree in theory, I am finding that the practical implementation of this is concept, in my home, is a completely different story.

My question is when it comes to parenting/disciplining your child, do you have to either be a carrot or a stick, or is it possible to be both?

Admittedly, I am very much a carrot. I try to be tough with my Little Man, and for the most part I consider myself to be pretty consistent when it come to the taking away of privileges. The problem for us is two fold,

1) I am a bit of a softy, and
2) my Little Man doesn't respond well to negative reinforcement.

The softy part is very much my issue. I often find myself saying, "they're just kids, " or "he's only three," and I am pretty much in the mindset that as long as he isn't bothering anyone else, and/or hurting himself than he should have the ability to be a kid. This is why I rarely take him to restaurants, and if I do it is for pizza, or some other loud and kid friendly environment. I am often envious of my friends who are able to take their children out with them to a nice dinner without any issue, but I know my kid, and sitting still (and quiet) will never be his strong suit. I sometimes feel that living in a city there are so many more "rules" for safety's sake that I am a little more relaxed when it comes to things like playing with sticks, and rocks, and I really will let my boy attempt to climb anything. When we are together my Little Man pretty much follows my rules, the problem lies in when we are apart... hence the rough days at school, which leads me to number two.

My Little Man just doesn't respond well to negative reinforcement. I'm not sure if it is the way I raised him, because he is an active boy, or if it's just his personality, but I have found that the more resistance my guy feels the more he will dig his heels in. Like his mother (ahem and father) he is one stubborn little guy and no matter how "tough" I am on him, he will continue to push any any every boundary, just to see what will happen. The end result was never good, and somewhere along the way I found that my little guy just responds better to a reward based system. Things like, "if you are good at the gym, then we can go an pick out a lollipop," or "if you sit still while we are at mommy's doctor, then we can watch an extra George," all the way to, "if you don't get out of bed before your light comes on for the next 10 days, then you can get a new toy car." It doesn't matter for him the length of time or really the prize itself, it's just the having something to work for that seems to motivate him.

This rewarding feeds into one of my biggest concerns, as a parent, which is that I don't want to raise a spoiled child. I don't want to find myself in a situation where I am rewarding behavior that is expected. Things like going to bed, sleeping through the night, eating right, brushing teeth, etc, these things I have no problem enforcing. My issue is with the grey areas. Should a three year old be expected to completely follow the rules at a school, 5 afternoons a week? Should they be expected to follow all the rules, all the time? I often wonder if the expectations, set by either the parent or society, of how a child should act in this day in age are sometimes too high? If this is the case than at the end of the day, shouldn't there be a small treat or reward that comes with meeting those expectations. Or am I just a wuss (remember this is coming from someone who admits that they are a softy?)

I have to think that we as adults also respond better if there is a reward to work towards, be it a vacation, a raise, praise from a spouse or boss. I feel like being a toddler must be like being in a work environment where EVERY time you mess up, your boss comes in an either yells at you or takes away your phone/ computer (insert item you can''t live without here.) You would be miserable for sure, and who could blame you if you had a temper tantrum at the end of every day (either that or a serious ulcer.)  Is this a case of as my friend says, rewarding what is expected, thereby allowing for bad behavior, or it it just acknowledging that sometimes the carrot works better than the stick?

I would love to hear from you all, have you found a way to balance negative and positive reinforcements, or is it true that you really have to be in one camp or the other?

PS any insight on how to get my kid to stop acting up when he is at school would also be greatly appreciated... seriously I'll pay you ;)


Victoria said...

This is such difficult ground for us right now. My son is almost 8 years old. Wonderful, fun, loud, busy, cheeky and just like yours finds it hard to sit still or be quiet for more than 5 mins. He pushes all the boundaries and knows exactly what buttons to press to get me firing on all cylinders!! We do the removal of tv, DSi, etc as punishment, but we also find that praising all the good stuff really helps. Just before the summer hols, he had a few tough weeks at school. His teacher started a daily journal of how things were going and this really turned things around. He so wanted good reports and worked really hard to get positive feedback.

Good luck with your little man.

Jill said...

When T was having a difficult time adjusting to her new, much larger, pre-school room (and being the youngest kid by a few months) we sat down with the teachers one morning and talked about what we did at home and how they could implement the same system at school. It was decided to create a sticker book and, even though my kid was not over-the-top crazy about stickers, something about getting stickers in her little book during the course of the day made her more compliant with the "rules", be it potty before naptime, or holding some sweaty boy's hand (YUCK!) to go to the play yard, waiting patiently in her cubby when the kids line up, etc. she was more than thrilled to show us her sticker book at the end of the day and all the stickers she got. it really helped that they were disney princess stickers and ones that we did not have at home.

the only other suggestion would be distraction, distraction, distraction. my husband subscribes to this. although i'm not the biggest advocate b/c i'm not sure what it is ultimately teaching, it really does get you from point a to point b w/o much resistance.

we also use a lot of positive reinforcement for when T does something awesome, or is being polite w/o being asked. and, most importantly, we explain why she is getting in trouble or can't do something. like, she wants to jump all over the couch. we say, no jumping on the couch, that is why we go to the playground. it takes time to work, but ultimately the kid (hopefully) gets it.

good luck!!! i think LM is adorable and he is just adjusting to school 5 days a week with his buds. this too shall pass, but seriously, give the teachers a stickerbook and some stickers that LM hasn't seen before but would totally be into. let him help you create the book and tell him that if he gets x number of stickers a week then he'll get a special toy, prize, outing, etc.

Kay said...

I think that it's fine for you to have your own personal perspective about what works for your son. The question is: Is what you're doing working? It sounds like most of the time, it does work. It's fine to be lenient around certain issues and I think it shows good judgement on your part to not expose your child to situations ( like quiet French eateries,etc) that you know it might be tough for him to manage. I do think, though, that behaving in school is pretty important. As the mom of 2 ( a kindergartner and a 1 yr old) and a former public school Biology teacher, sending the message that school is a place where it's important to follow the rules is a good place to start. What's worked for me personally with my very active and rambunctious 5 year old is to nip bad behavior in the bud immediately. There has to be a consequence, whether it's losing a privelege or a time-out ( just having to leave the room where the action is irks my kid to no end). Rewards are great, but I'm afraid I agree with your friend- toys, treats, etc should be reserved for extra special, over-the-top good kid behavior- I like to surprise my 5 year old AFTER she's been wonderful - not IF she agrees to be wonderful. I do firmly believe that kids shouldn't be rewarded for getting through the day. There supposed to be able to do that. If you think about why you do this ( just a thought, not a criticism) it might be because as you said, you're a softie-you don't like how you feel when you have to be tough and punish your child. Noone likes to do these things- but it's what kids need. They'll have plenty of friends in their lives- but only one mother- they don't need your friendship, they need your guidance. Just my opinion. Best of luck with your little cutie.

FreckleFaceKaty said...

As for the acting up in school, set up 2 or 3 really important rules with him and his teacher. Make a chart that lists these rules and if he follows it all day, he gets a sticker in that section of the chart. If he gets a certain amount of stickers, then he can have something AWESOME! Like an extra half hour or tv, or ice cream for desert. Just make sure you stick with the consequence!

Anonymous said...

Yes. He should be expected to follow all the rules at school, all the time. He won't, of course, but he should be expected to. If you're automatically lowering expectations, you're setting him up for real trouble when he starts thinking the school rules don't *really* apply to him. You'll end up with a kid who can't turn in an assignment on time and is indignant at the thought that he has to. You can praise him when he has good days, but it's got to be good by the teacher's standards, because that's the way life works. (insert "boss" for "teacher" for illustration)

Now at home, you've got the leeway to have fewer rules/lower expectations. If you feel like you're always unfairly nagging him about something, drop that rule. We play with sticks here and we don't make our beds, because those things don't bug me enough to enforce consistently. And without consistency in enforcement, you've got nothing.

Anonymous said...

So there is a difference between carrot and stick (reward and punishment) and natural consequences. A natural consequence of pushing someone off the slide at the park is that you can't go back to the park until you're ready to try not to push. A natural consequence of finishing dinner is dessert -- it's not a reward for doing something--it's just what happens naturally. And natural consequences don't happen with screaming or anger--firm but friendly works. And the key to it all is consistency. You can't allow a behavior one day when you're feeling soft and then go ballistic the next day when you're grumpy. That's not fair to the kid. And you don't get rewards and punishment when you're an adult. A natural consequence of doing a great job at work could be a raise but think how defeated you would be if you were literally punished (shamed,criticized in public) for a mistake. Not a great learning opportunity.

Meaghan said...

I have two boys who are through preschool and a little girl who has yet to start, and I can assert that what works for one child will not work for another. I have a rule follower (although he's very social and occasionally gets in trouble for talking) and one who's attitude is, "I did the crime, I'll do the time". So I think you need to figure out what motivates him. We tried the sticker chart and had some successes. We had the teacher use a "traffic light" at school, where every day you start on green and can go to yellow/red for poor behavior (typically after some warnings). The visual cues really helped. Our latest is a ping-pong ball system where good behavior earns a ping-pong ball (in a fishbowl) and poor behavior removes one. We put a line across the middle and one at the top for different rewards that can be earned. For us the rewards all involve a "date" with either Dad or I, since we find that with three kiddos they really enjoy that special time. The ping-pong balls are visual and there is a two way street (earn them and lose them). It may sound complicated, but once he starts earning I think he'll get the hang of it. I am in agreement that kids need to follow the rules in school. We may not always agree with the teachers, but they have a lot more kids to deal with than we do, so their rules must be followed. Good luck!!

Grams said...

I have so been there, done that. He does have to live by the teacher rules, but that can be so hard especially while he's so young. We struggled with this from nursery school through middle school with Nick. Some teachers were able to deal and handle him and some were not.

While I do think it's fair for teachers to expect parental support and reinforcement, I do not think it's reasonable for them to expect you to handle the problem hours later at home.

For Nick, the carrot was the only way to go. Once we figured out what motivated him it got so much easier. We handled it by rewarding him for meeting the teacher's expectations. Good report from teacher = points towards the reward he wanted. Bad report = no points.

We also found it helpful to ask for daily (or at least weekly) written reports from the teacher. Some thought it was too much trouble, but many were very cooperative.

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

As long as you're strict about what needs to be done, then I think you are all right. For example - if he's done something bad and you tell him that he won't get dessert, but end up giving him something anyways (like a scoop of icecream, a cookie, etc), that's where the failure of being a good parent starts. I recently au paired for an author this summer who had a few children that knew the mom's system and would abuse it, and would always get what they wanted in some fashion. It was hard for me to deal with them because they wouldn't listen to me, and when I refused to give them something they wanted that I had just taken away, they'd behave so badly and start to act more snotty.
This is probably written poorly because I'm a college student who couldn't escape the sickness that's currently traveling around Boston. ANYWAYS Your method sounds perfectly fine to me! (Anyways, from your posts, you seem like you've got this mothering business down.)

KelliJ said...

Yes, LM should be expected to follow the rules at school just like the other kids. He’ll break his fair share, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Schools are dealing with a lot of children at once. No rules = chaos (and liability). My little girl’s preschool doesn’t have many rules, but I understand why they have their rules, and I expect her to follow them. (She’ll be 3 at the end of October.) I’m sure you chose LM’s school for many reasons, one of which is that you supported their ‘rules’, at least in theory. ;-)

Remember that kids lack critical thinking and safety awareness. As adults, our boss can come in and talk to us about the mistake we made without taking away our computer. It doesn’t work that way with a young child. While a young child can seem very smart, i.e., they can figure out how to get that cookie on the counter, they don’t think about the fact that they can fall off the counter and break an arm. I’ve found that explaining the risk doesn’t impact my child’s behavior at all. ;-) That’s where a different form of punishment comes in. They need a punishment that they understand.

We don’t use sticker charts or rewards for good behavior. (There's an episode of Sid the Science Kid that shows the danger in using charts to earn a toy!) We think that sends the wrong message. We really don’t punish her either. She’s never had a time out (she wouldn’t sit for one anyway) or had a toy or dessert taken away. Not that she’s an angel by any means, but distraction works really well. Also, ‘no’ is ‘no’ in our house. She can cry all she wants but she’s not going to climb on the counter or play with scissors or walk in the parking lot without holding a grown-ups hand. (All issues we dealt with over the weekend!)

I’ve found that the key to good discipline is follow-through. If you punish one time, then let it go the next you are just confusing your LM. Punishments must be consistent in order for them to work because if kids know you will give in, they will wear you down and wait you out!

Good luck!

Carrie said...

I totally agree with everyone above that your should be expected to follow the rules at school, and all the comments about rewards for extra-special kid behavior.

I am a carrot who is trying to find the right balance between carrot and stick parenting since I have found that my 4 y/o child was starting to become a bit bratty (yes, I admit it, he was getting bratty!). My carrot parenting turned into me cajoling/begging my child to behave because I didn't want to follow through on the consequence b/c I knew a monstrous tantrum would follow. He wouldn't listen, he would LAUGH when I tried to put him into had started as little behaviors that I let slide but now it was really getting bad.

I had a friend recommend the parenting book "Have a New Kid by Friday" by Dr. Kevin Leman and it is really working! My kids are ages 2 and 4, both boys. We are working on instant obedience which until I read this book, I honestly did not think was possible for kids my age (or any age really). The new rule in our house is that Mommy and Daddy ask ONE TIME and if they don't do what is asked they experience the consequence, whether it be the loss of a privelege (e.g. the carrot they've been promised for good behavior) or time-out depending on what the request was. It was REALLY hard at first, and the tantrums were outrageous when I followed through with the consequence. But I tell you IT IS WORKING (not 100% of the time, but there is marked improvement) and it's so nice not to be constantly negotiating or begging my child to behave the way they should. I had completely underestimated what my children were capable of doing, and I think maybe you are too. Yes, they need to be allowed to be kids, but they also need to know that you are the authority and certain behavior is expected.

It does sound like you know what works for your child so I'm sure you will find what works for you in this situation as well. Just thought I'd share what has been working for me! Thanks.

Margaret said...

You have to find what works for your kid. My first (3) gets upset when I raise my voice, and timeouts will force him to tears. Threats TOTALLY work with him. My daughter (2) is totally opposite-- she thinks getting in trouble is funny and I've had a seriously hard time enforcing rules with her. If you know that your son needs to work toward a reward, by all means, fix your own after-school system of rewards. If he has so many good days, he gets a reward. And do think to yourself that he's only 3-- that's still very young. You have to be understanding when he has bad days.
And, personally and as a former teacher, I do not think 3-year-olds are old enough to be in a school environment. There's a reason why kindergarten starts at 5. If your little guy isn't having 100% fun at his preschool, let him stay home. You get them for 5 short years before they have to go to school and will be away more than they are hom. If his teacher is tough, I'm sure he'd rather be playing with sticks with you anyway.
You sound like a great mom and I know you'll figure this out! :)