“Without Rewards or Punishment, What Motivates You?” Young People Raised Gently Answer Parents’ Questions.

Larissa Dann

“Bringing up children without rewards or punishment, and no smacking? They’ll be spoilt brats that are entitled and selfish!” So said my mother and her friends when I declared that this was the way I would be bringing up my son, twenty-four years ago. A second child later, and it’s time to reflect.

Just how did this parenting approach impact on my children, and importantly, our relationship, as they matured through childhood, the teen years, and on to adulthood?

What better way to find out, than to ask the young people themselves?


The terms ‘peaceful’, or ‘gentle’, parenting had not yet been coined when I was introduced to the skills and concepts of Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T, by Thomas Gordon). I now believe that the principles of P.E.T. are the foundation of peaceful/gentle parenting practice.

I discovered this approach to parenting when my son was just eight months old. I learnt how to respectfully communicate with children, and I changed my perception of them. Importantly, I had an alternative to using rewards and punishment to change my child’s behaviour.

Now, as an accredited P.E.T. instructor, I have years of running P.E.T courses under my belt - at the same time raising my children with the skills I was teaching.

During one course, parent participants asked to speak with my young teenage daughter. She agreed, they asked questions, she answered, we reflected.

During subsequent groups either my young adult son, or my teenage daughter, has fielded questions on being brought up with respectful communication skills, and, specifically, no rewards or punishment.

Below are a selection of questions asked by parents attending P.E.T parenting courses, and some of the spontaneous answers from my children (their age at the time of the question prefacing their answer).

Please note: the questions and answers refer to ‘P.E.T’ or ‘P.E.T skills’, which is, really, short hand for respectful communication and relationship skills.


No Rewards Or Punishment

Family Relationships

Being the child of parents who use gentle/peaceful parenting

Knowing the skills

On relationships outside your family

Your future families

Tips to parents from two young people

Questions from Mum

On the topic of NOT being rewarded or punished throughout your childhood, and discipline.

Without rewards and punishment, what motivates you?

15yo. I think it's mostly internal stuff. So I want to do well for the sake of me doing well in something. I want to do well to prove to myself that I can do it. Like, I aim to get good grades so that I can say to myself, "Ah, yes! I got a good grade. Yay”. There’s a difference between intrinsic versus extrinsic reward, I guess it's more ... I'm internally driven to try and do my best for me rather than trying to do my best for someone else first.

When did you realise that you didn’t receive rewards or punishments, but others did?

14yo. I think when I was younger, I used to say to my friends, "Oh yeah. I don’t get rewards or punishment for anything,” and my friends would say, "What? What are you talking about?" But I think it was really big when I started my dance because with my dance, there was whole lot of, "Good job! You get a lolly or you get a sticker”. And I was like, "Wait. What? Why am I getting this? I'm just doing it because it's cool."

Did you come to conclusions yourself to change your behaviour, rather than be yelled at?

23yo. I've seen my friend just get yelled at, and there's no understanding between child and parent. I would always come to my own conclusion because we would talk it through and use I-Messages: “I feel like blah, blah, blah”, instead of "You've been bad" which doesn't clarify anything, and that's not really even a behaviour, so it's hard to come to a conclusion from something like that. I think for me it’s real communication. You're actually addressing an issue, and then I will form my own conclusions.

Was it challenging to go to a school that uses rewards and punishment for behaviour management, when you come from a home that doesn’t?

15yo. Yeah it’s different, going from at home where I try to do it for the sake of doing it, for what I feel is right rather than being told, "If you don't do something like this or you do this you're going to have this happen to you”. I think in primary school it was different because there was the massive thing about time out - if you get it wrong you have to go sit in the corner. I didn’t think about it [rewards and punishment] until I went to school. Kids talking about their parents grounding them, or whatever. I'm like, "That's never happened to me and I hope it won't happen.” I doubt it will.

One of the biggest changes we’ve made is not rewarding or punishing our little kids. Did you get confused that at school you’d get rewarded for behaviour, but not at home?

15yo. Not so much for me, but I do dance outside of school, and with that I'm a class assistant with the younger children, and my other coaches say things like, "Oh good job, you get a sticker!" And stuff like star charts, and I kind of find it difficult, because I've been brought up not to do that - so I'm the coach that never gives out any rewards. But even though I don't do that, I feel like the little kids still respond to my coaching, or they still come to me if something happens. So that's a little bit confronting, to transition from home, to a school [dance] where it's all based on rewards.

How have you handled other grown ups in your life that aren’t PET, that maybe have an authoritarian or controlling style? How have you approached that?

15yo. I kind of have experienced that kind of thing. I have teachers that might approach us that are very, "Do this. Do that. Do it or else". And I do find it quite difficult, but I just try and keep my head down and deal with it. It is a bit of a shock coming from being at home and then going into "Okay, if you don't do this, it's going to happen." Like, why can't you just let me understand for myself why this is wrong? But I guess I just try and do the right thing.

Has there been any disadvantage to this way of parenting – from your perspective?

15yo. I have enjoyed the way I've been brought up and I think I'm very lucky. I mean - it would be nice to occasionally get some money for my good grades, you know? (laughter from group) But honestly, I can't really see any big problems. Yeah, I think P.E.T. is good.

Family Relationships

How did the P.E.T skills influence your relationship with your Mum?

23yo. I guess I have confidence in Mum, that if I have to bring up something with her, or I get in trouble or whatever, it's comforting to know that I'm not going to just get punished. I don’t have any fear or anything. But more than that, I know I can just talk with her and she'll talk about everything. We'll actually talk about it. Not just Mum’s spur of the moment interpretation.

What is the relationship with your brother/sister? Sibling conflict?

15 yo. I think it [P.E.T. skills] has given us a foundation to get along with each other and be better. Because we understand how to hear each other's problems, if one of us has an issue with the other. Like, if he wants to practice his music and I'm in the way, he can tell me, "Look, I need to practice." And I'm like, "Okay”. Because I guess I can understand why.

14yo. I think that because we can use I-Messages and stuff, we don't say, "You did this!" And, "you did that!" We say, "I had this happen for me when this happens". I think it does affect, probably, our relationship. Almost all of my friends are the oldest siblings. And I'd hear these stories about their annoying little siblings and I'm like, "I don't think my brother and I are that bad. "

We don't really have too many big fights that I can remember. And if we do, we'll ironically, or not ironically, Actively Listen each other ... "So you see, I'm really upset when you say this to me."

I remember when I'd get frustrated with Mum or Dad or anything, my brother would come and sit down and say, "Okay, so blah blah blah." And he'd Active Listen me. And that would be really helpful because I'd be like, "Yeah, that’s how I’m feeling."

Mum would be constantly doing the whole "Oh you sound really," ... So it was refreshing to hear another person say it. My brother and I get on really well. We're very close. We don't fight too much, which is nice.

I think most people would be able to do that anyway, but it has given us a good foundation to communicate well. I think communication is a big thing that we feel we can do. And I think, potentially, P.E.T. has helped us with that.

Do you have tips for parents to talk to their children about big stuff – when it's not an immediate problem but it goes against a virtue?

14yo. I don't know, it's just dinnertime conversations for us that a lot of the time, revolve around [those issues]. I think it's just how you bring it up in a way that isn't on the defensive. If something happens, even if it's just on the TV or on the news, it's "we don't like this because of this and this." It can spark a discussion on values and stuff. Some families protect their kids from the big issues, and they can feel kind of left out in the blue or isolated. I guess that goes beyond P.E.T. and more just into your family.

[When my grandmother was dying], as a family, we are really open and we'll talk about death and grief and loss. We don't really shy away from that kind of stuff.

If you and your mum argue, how are the P.E.T skills helpful?

15yo. [If we are arguing] I can stop myself and say okay, this isn't working. I'm not getting my point across. So then I try and reformat my arguments, by saying, "I feel like this when this happens." Or "Sounds like you're really upset, blah, blah." It kind of helps to both get my point across, and also make sure that the other person knows that they're heard. So they know that I do know what they're saying. All I know is this is quite handy to know. Also, I get to like, pull Mum up if she used ‘you-messages’ and stuff.

Do you find that sometimes you Active Listen your Mum?

Actually, yeah, I do, because sometimes Mum will be annoyed about something or upset or stressed, and I'll say, "You sound really frustrated right now." And it seems to sometimes work. That’s always handy, having to reverse everything as well.

On being a child of P.E.T parenting

How did this way of parenting effect your teen years?

23yo. I think that trust [from my parents] has a big impact on me. If a friend did something that their parents weren’t happy with, or their parents punished them, I didn’t really notice them change their behaviour so much - just that they'll try harder not to get caught. I think I’ve said to Mum, it’s not a great feeling if I feel like I’ve betrayed or disappointed my parents. So then I think about that, which I guess comes across as more active communication.

Do you think it’s helped you be more confident, in terms of saying what you want and need out of life?

13yo. It could. I can say to Mum “Oh, I feel . . . like when this happens, I do feel a bit upset. If I hear this, or if I’m told this, then I feel upset”.

How do the PET skills help if you argue?

14yo. I think that if people argued, just being able to realise what has happened, to step back from it. Almost examine conversations. “Okay, so I probably could’ve said something a little bit different there.”

Knowing about the P.E.T skills as a child.

Did you read the material (on P.E.T), or did your Mum just use the skills practically, and you learned what she was doing?

15 yo. I didn't read the material. But I learned it through Mum's practical use of the skills and everything. At the dinner table we’d have big family discussions ... she’d bring up I-messages and Active Listening, and things like that. So, it's kind of a bit of both. She'd tell us what she teaches and how it works, but then she put it in to practical use, which helped me to understand it and see how it worked in real life.

Like if there's an argument, often we'll come back to it later, and we'll say, “I probably should have said this, instead, this is what I meant”. If we'd sent lots of ‘you-messages’, and we'd blamed each other a lot, we’d say, “I'm just feeling like this and this is what's happening for me, and I should have said this. Sorry” and stuff like that.

I've found it helpful, to be, like, taught.

PET skills and relationships outside your immediate family

Do you use P.E.T with your friends, or with your friends and family? Do you think your friends know that you’re good to chat to, that you use the skills more?

(I have disguised who answered to ensure the privacy of my children and their friends).

I wouldn't say that I have like a reputation for being really empathetic, any more than anyone else. But I think once someone does start to open up, I'll be pretty engaged in listening to them. And they’ll feel comfortable to talk to you a second time

I do a lot of Active Listening. My friends used to come to me with their problems, because I would just listen and I'd acknowledge that I heard what they said. And I'd say things back to them like, "That sounds like it was really . . . ". I also do this over text. It's almost easier [over text] because you can read faster and pick out that okay, this must be frustrating, this must hurt. I think it has been quite helpful. I have been told on occasion, when I have done that, they have said, "Thank you for listening. I feel like you really heard what I said. And I really appreciate you taking the time out."

I’ve been known as ‘the counsellor’ friend.

Is it frustrating to hear non-P.E.T skills being used?

13yo. I can notice the differences, because I'll listen to someone else talking to someone, and I can hear the little things, like Roadblocks, are they called? But I can hear Roadblocks, or ‘you-messages’. I can see how it all can affect everybody – a ripple effect, I guess. It's like, say one thing, then something else will happen.

Is P.E.T helpful outside the family?

14yo. ‘ We’ve been doing mental health at school, and it’s coincided with P.E.T. Like, Actively Listening to your fellow person, rather than just saying “oh, yeah”.

So P.E.T doesn't just affect parenting - but also can be utilized in every day life, like just talking to your friends, or your family, or colleagues. Yeah, you can utilize it in a variety of situations

You both teach younger children in different performing arts areas. Do you use the P.E.T skills, and how are they helpful?

14yo. In my dance class, I try to avoid having to give out the stars and being like, "You get a sticker" because I feel like I'm betraying P.E.T. But it's just really interesting, because eventually by about 6 months to a year, the novelty of stars starts to wear off. And the kids are like, "Cool. I have a sticker. What does this mean? Why do I have this sticker thing on? I'm just doing it. I'm pointing my toes. I get a sticker”. Some of them are like, "I'll try my hardest to get this piece of plastic." But then, the other ones are, "Yeah, cool. It's a sticker. I don't really care."

If they are upset, or might miss their mum or their dad, or they have hurt themselves, or they're just really thirsty - I just sit down with them and say “Oh, you’re upset. What’s up?” and all that kind of stuff. You have to ask them, you have listen to them, and communicate that we can help.

They'll come and talk to me about random stuff in the middle of class. I'll be like, "Okay. That sounds good, but you need to be dancing right now. Sorry."

23 yo. I teach piano to young kids, some who are in high school, but the majority are in primary school. I went through music in Uni and I have friends who went through the Uni with me and did music education. And they are still coming out of this education degree and they're like, "When there's a bad kid, you have to send them to the corner." I'm like, "I can't believe it!" Because, (I mean I don't like admitting this) but I've never had an instance where, if I Active Listen a student, they haven't changed their behaviour.

Usually if they are upset at the start of the lesson or something, I try and address the problem. Recently, I’ve been tutoring a boy who is about six year old. He’s always enjoyed his lessons but both these lessons he just hasn't wanted to do it. I go to pick him up from after school care and he's with his mum and he won't let his mum take his bag off his back because like, that represents a step closer to the piano lesson. He just really doesn't want to go. His Mum kind of caresses him to go into the lesson. And then within five minutes of me just saying “so you’re feeling pretty tired” or something, then he's fine to do the lesson.

I struggle actually with in-group lessons a lot, when I have a lot more kids in the room. If I take one kid aside to talk to them, the other kids will do whatever they want. But with my one-on-one students, if they don't want to go to piano, I’ll either I-message or Active Listen, to try to work out what's going on with them, and it seems to just always work. Just the act of them talking about it for a really short time usually does the trick. And if not, if we actually talk about it, I'll try and work towards a solution with them. And that's it.

Your future families

In the far distant future, can you imagine being a parent, or do you dread the thought?

23yo. Yeah, I can imagine it. With P.E.T, I don't know, I like to think that I'm already okay communicating with people, so maybe my pride will stop me from actually reading that book. But who knows where I'll actually put it into practice with my own children. Like I know it's a lot easier for me to Active Listen my students than for me to communicate effectively with some of my family, for instance, so I think I still need lots of work because I'm young. [But it will help by] not just reacting straight away.

Do you think you will consciously follow through when you have a family of your own?

15yo. I think potentially, yes, I will try. Because I've noticed I have liked my bringing up. I think it's really helpful having been brought up like this and I think I'm going to with my family, bring them up with the P.E.T. style. Well, because in my life, it's been very beneficial for emotional understanding and learning. Getting to be able to know how I feel, and how other people feel, and to be able to help with that kind of stuff, I feel, is quite important.

13yo. It'll rub off. I guess it rubs off onto your kids, and they'll rub off onto their kids in turn, and keep on going and all that stuff.

Tips to parents from two young people

What would your top three tips be for parents of teenage boys going into the teenage years?

23yo. I can think of one instance where I did get in trouble at a young age [teenager]. That was myself and a group of friends and months after the incident, some of the people in that group were still like, "Oh, I'm grounded! You know, fighting with my parents." And the day after it happened, I remember thinking at the time it almost made Mum look like a not-active parent, because all these other parents are taking steps to discipline their children. But in actuality, I was just not going to do it again.

So I guess the fact was that Mum actually addressed it with me, we talked about it, without damaging our relationship so much. And yeah, again, there were two sides of the coin. I guess I had confidence that I wasn't going to be punished so I was happy there. But then, I felt even worse at times than if I hadn't just been punished, because I knew I had disappointed.

I think it's through our discussion. Mum doesn't say, “Don’t do that, it’s bad”, but will say things like “If you do that, then this can happen.”

Do you have any tips for adults on how to come across as being genuine with your active listening?

15yo. I can tell when she [Mum] goes into P.E.T. mode. She puts on a different voice and a different tone. But, it's good. It still works so that's always a plus. Maybe it's because I have been brought up since I was little with Active Listening, I can usually tell. And I'm just like, "No. That's being really annoying. You're forcibly doing it." But then other times, I have no idea that she's Active Listening until afterwards. I'm like, "Wait. Thank you for that."

Questions from me (Mum)

People who haven’t attended a P.E.T course are often concerned that it is a permissive way to parent, and children brought up this way will be spoilt, entitled. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Teen: If people feel entitled then generally I think they might not be very self-aware? [P.E.T] is not permissive, because permissive is just giving in, but you're not giving in with P.E.T, you're just discussing it with your child, you're not being authoritarian. [I imagine] with parenting, it isn't you're either permissive or you're authoritarian, there's a middle ground, like P.E.T.

Adult: I think that [when parents use P.E.T] it's more like they're treating their kids as equals And, in fact, doing the opposite, and not spoiling them, or giving them a sense of entitlement at all. ‘Cause there's not so much praise involved. Just because it [P.E.T approach] doesn't use punishment, doesn't mean it creates spoiled kids. Because they also don't reward good behaviour . . . so because children aren’t being rewarded, they're not going to think they're entitled to anything.

I can't imagine that being spoiled, and being empathetic, can coexist. And isn’t that what P.E.T helps children develop?

From your unique perspective, (brought up without punishment or reward, P.E.T skills instead), what do you see as the value of P.E.T to kids?

Teen: Being able to communicate effectively with your peers. Because, that's the foundation of everything. If you can form solid relationships from a young age, which is what P.E.T helps with, I think, then your entire life is going to be a lot easier. Because you're so much less likely to get into those massive shouting matches, because at least one party will be able to communicate in a way that you can be heard and feel heard. So I think that just being able to communicate and have that emotional intelligence and that relationship with those around you, is very beneficial.

I guess the punishment and reward stuff, it's like you're driven by yourself and your own wants and needs and your own expectations as opposed to being driven out of the fear of getting punished, or the fear of not being rewarded.

Adult: The whole initiative thing, I guess. Because you learned to not do things out of fear of punishment or promise of a reward. So, that's a good thing in adult life. You're self-motivated. Also, the empathy thing. That's probably a good skill to have in life. And just communication.

How do you think the P.E.T. skills help prepare children for adult life?

Teen: I think an adult life is being able to have an adult relationship, and a relationship with someone, or lots of people, that is a respectful relationship, and a kind relationship, and an understanding relationship, and a relationship in which both parties are equal.

Having a job doesn't make you an adult. I know 12 year olds that work. [I’ve heard that] in the workforce they look for skills like problem solving, which P.E.T definitely helps with, because you can look at a problem, and you can go to root of the problem and work from the middle out, and not just jump straight towards solutions.

But I think your adult life is the life in which you may have more independence, and P.E.T does set that child up for when they do have independence and they're off in their own world living their lives, having a job.

Adult: So learn a non-confrontational communication skill set [with P.E.T]. Which is a useful thing to take with you to adult life. Empathy probably prepares you for when you're going to be a parent. It’s general communication. My sister and I have obviously used it with our friends. I've used I-Messages in lots of professional situations like dealing with employers and whatnot, and it always seems to be pretty effective. And I've used it in teaching, and it seems to be pretty effective.

First published 16 June, 2018.

© Larissa Dann 2018

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