Letting Go of Rewards and Punishments

Transcript of highlights from Joyful Courage – Podcast by Casey: Episode 90 – Larissa Dann

Casey: Welcome, welcome. Welcome back to the podcast, my friends. Welcome. Join us over in the Live and Love with Joyful Courage Facebook group where we are continuing the conversation in a growing community of like-minded parents.

Today on the show my guest is Larissa Dann. She is from Parent Skills.com.au. Larissa is an experienced instructor of Parent Effectiveness Training, also known as P.E.T., and she is passionate about the skills taught in that course. She uses the skills every day with her children or partner, and in her workplace, and at the shopping centre, and she is always striving with various degrees of success to practice what she preaches. Aren't we all? Please share with the listeners a little bit about your journey of doing what you do

Larissa: When I was first a new mum, I came across this parenting course, which was different to the way that I had been parented. P.E.T looked at our children as being people - sadly, that was revolutionary.

Would you talk to your neighbour in the same way that you talk to your child? And if not, why? Why are our children ever less deserving of respect? Concepts like that, about listening, deeply listening, and really hearing your child and understanding where they're coming from; being assertive on our own behalf but without alienating our children, without blaming them, without putting them down; and then importantly, problem solving and involving our children in the outcome of a situation we may both have. To do that, we don't use rewards and punishment. For me, that was the most challenging concept - not using rewards and punishment.

Now, my son is in his early 20s, and I also have a teenage daughter, and I thought it would be useful to reflect in hindsight about how this approach has worked - or has not worked. I thought I'd like to share that it is possible [to bring up children without reward or consequence], and I think that the outcomes are beneficial to families and to parents, and, of course, to children - and children are our future citizens of the world. They hold our future in their hands, and if we can skill them up so that they want to look at the whole world, not just themselves, I think we're in a better place.

Casey: What I heard you say and sharing about your experience... a phrase that I'm really interested in, too, is being assertive without alienating our children. Can you talk a little bit about what that means to you?

A new way of thinking about behaviour.

Larissa: There's a really useful model that we have that Thomas Gordon, who wrote P.E.T, devised, and it starts off with, first of all, a self-awareness model. That's about looking at ourselves and saying, well, how am I experiencing this behaviour and what might be affecting the way that I experience it, and my response? If we're having a tough day, if we've been yelled at by our boss, or if we're stressed for financial reasons, we're going to have less patience with our children and we're going to respond perhaps in ways that we'd prefer not to; so, it starts off with self-awareness.

Whose needs aren’t being met? Who ‘owns the problem’?

Then, we look at who, actually, in this situation, is the one whose needs aren't being met, who's unhappy, who owns the problem? If it's the child, then we're guided to listen to them, to help them understand what's happening for them and for, us and for them to come up with a solution. If it's us, then we need to understand ourselves and to be able to assert our needs, but in a way that our children will hear us and perhaps want to change their behaviour because they consider us and because they love us. Then, there are going to be situations where both our needs are equally important, so how are we going to come up with a solution that will suit both of us? That's when we come to problem solving or win-win conflict resolution.

Importantly, P.E.T. talks about a no-problem area. Often, even that is a revolutionary concept – that, in a relationship, we have times where there are no problems. The P.E.T skills aim to increase that no-problem area, because that's when you love being with your kids, when you enjoy being together; it's family time.

All of this is about relationship. It's about communication, respectful communication skills. If we need to communicate to our children that in some way our needs aren't being met, we need to do it in a manner that they're not going to immediately rebel, act up, get their back up, turn away, slam the door on us. We need to somehow alert them so that we feel heard and they understand us.

We would do this through an I-Message, devised by Thomas Gordon.


An I-Message describes, non-blamefully, the behaviour that you've seen your child do. What I-Messages do is to say, "Okay, I'm the parent here. I own the problem”. If I don't say anything, I'm going to be resentful towards my child. I need to clear the air. I need to let them know how I'm feeling, but I want to keep them on side, and I want to keep this relationship.

Let's say there are LEGO® blocks in the lounge room. First of all, I would say something like, "When I see those LEGO blocks," - that's the behaviour; “I feel concerned”. I'm opening myself up, I'm saying, this is who I am, and these are my feelings; then I say, "And this is the impact that this might have on me."

"When I see the LEGO blocks on the floor, I feel concerned that I might walk on them and they've got sharp corners and they're really going to hurt my feet." That way, what I'm doing then is appealing to my child's better nature. They want to help. I'm saying ( without saying), “can you help me?” I'm saying, "Look, I trust you. I trust you to consider me and to help our relationship." Then, hopefully the child might say, "Oh no, I don't want you to have sore feet," and pick them up.

You haven't destroyed the relationship. You've helped your child, you've shown self-disclosure, you've modelled what feelings are. You've modelled, this is what concern means. You've modelled that it's legitimate, that people legitimately have needs, and we can help them meet those needs.

What to do with resistance – ‘shift gears’

When you get push back and resistance, what we'd say then is that the child might have a need, whatever that is; they might want to just finish this castle because it's the best one they've ever, ever done. They might say, "No, I don't want to pick up that LEGO right now. I've got to finish this castle." Then, we can say, "Ah," and then hear what's happening for them; so, we would call that Active Listening, and then putting the two together, we ‘Shift Gears’. We move from meeting our needs to hearing what's happening for them, which can open them up to hear us again.

We might say, "Oh, wow, looks like that castle is really important to you and it's not fair for me to ask you to pick it up right this minute." As soon as they’re understood, they might just change. I’ve seen it with my children – listen to their resistance, their reasons, and they turn, from front to back.

Casey: Today, we're going to talk even more specifically around not using rewards and consequences, because there's another way that that situation could play out, right? You could say something like, "Hey, well, I've got a special treat for you as soon as these LEGO are put away," or you could say, "Hey, if you don't get these LEGO put away, you aren't going to get to have that treat that I promised." I think that we've convinced ourselves that somehow that is what is going to get our children moving, and it's really short-sighted.

Who are children considering when they change their behaviour?

Larissa: When you say that you're going to get this treat if, or you won't get this treat; what happens if the child changes their behaviour, if your child picks up the LEGO? Who are they picking the LEGO up for? Is it for you, out of consideration for wanting to be part of the relationship and to help you out? Or are they picking up the LEGO for themselves because they want that treat?

I think an important aspect about thinking about rewards and punishment, is that it is an external locus of control, that children become dependent on the judgment of other people around their behaviour. This is opposed to what we're aiming for, (or what I was aiming for, anyway, over those years), which is to help my children develop an inner locus of control - self-discipline, an inner discipline. I tried to avoid my children being dependent on other people saying, "You're so good, you're so clever," or, "That wasn't a good thing to do," because they're not going to be with me for all their lives. What we're doing in childhood, is preparing them for adulthood. If we keep them dependent on our judgment of them, if we're not helping them work out for themselves whether things are good or bad, whether what they're doing is the right thing – by themselves and other people - then they're not going to be prepared for the world.

Moral compass

When you avoid using rewards and punishment, but you use the relationship skills, I think you can help children from a very young age develop a moral compass, I suppose you could call it.

For me, one example was with my three-year-old daughter. Her brother was 12, and she went into the dining room, and there he is eating some cereal, and she said, "Oh, I want some cereal." He said, "Oh, okay then - shall I give you some of my cereal? I'll get a bowl and you can have some of mine." She said, "No, I hate you! I want my own," and she walked out.

I thought, "Oh, okay," and so I Active Listened, "You'd really like your own cereal." "Yes, please." I continued to get her cereal, and then I thought, "Mm, I really didn't like the way she spoke to her brother”. I got down to her level and said, "Look, when I heard you say to your brother that you hated him, I was very concerned. I'm worried that he might've felt quite hurt and sad inside.” That's all I said. I got up, continued to get her cereal and gave her the bowl to take into the dining room. She said, "No, no, don't give me that yet. I have to go and say sorry to my brother."

For me, that's a powerful story because how often have we said to our kids, "You go and say sorry. You apologize." I didn't do that. She worked out for herself how she needed to repair the relationship with her deeply adored brother, and she was three years old.

Another example was when my daughter was aged four. She came out into the kitchen while I was washing up, chatting away happily to herself. I heard her say, in four-year-old soliloquy-style, "Look, here are the lollies from the party today," and she reached out to the bag. Then she stopped and she said to herself out loud (I could hear her), "Hey, I've just done my teeth, and I can't have lollies after I've done my teeth.” She took her hand away and went into the lounge room to play. Now, I didn't know she'd done her teeth, so had she come to me, I probably would have said “yes, you can have a lolly”.

I know all children will be considerate. For me, these are examples of what happens when we help our children think about others, and working out for themselves what's right or wrong can – and that's mostly from not using reward and punishment.

If you think about rewards - they only work when children are dependent on you. They depend on you to provide that reward; and conversely, punishment causes fear and works because of fear. If your child is afraid of what you might do to him (which is where punishment is also doing ‘to’, rather than ‘with’), he or she wouldn't come to you.

I think these parenting skills help us repair relationships. We can dissect a situation and we can talk about what could work better - how I could've said that in a different way and that it would have had different consequences to our relationship.

Then there is resilience. Children experience everything for the first time. They don't have a history to look back on to say, "Well, when this happened to me, this is how I got through it." When children can come to us, and we simply listen to what's happened to them - bad stuff, or stuff that they wish they hadn't done, that they regret. Hopefully, they find ways to address what’s happened, and then they can move on. I believe that's building resilience.

What our children learn from rewards and punishment – modelling.

[One of most powerful methods of teaching is modelling – living what we believe. What does that mean for reward and punishment?] Let's look at time-out, for example, or any sort of punishment (remember, we really only use punishment when there's a conflict of needs). What is a punishment such as time-out modelling to our children, when we’re not there? What happens when our child is in a conflict on the playground and they're unhappy - but the only conflict resolution tools they have at hand is what's happened to them at home [or in the classroom]? A child’s experience might be that when a parent wants this solution, and the child doesn't want it, then the parent is going to use their power and send child to time-out. Time-out is really ostracizing - isolating the child from the relationship with the parent for a certain amount of time. Daniel Siegel is sort of showing us that. So, on the playground, they might just say, "Well, I'm not going to play with you anymore," and then you get that relational isolation. Or, you might get fisticuffs, for other methods of punishment.

Casey: Ooh, fisticuffs. That's an Australian thing, I think. What's a fisticuff.

Larissa: Fisticuff. Fight.

Casey:Yeah – they don't have any tools. They don't have any skills because we've handled problems by just saying go sit in the corner.

Larissa: That's right. As an example of modelling skills, when my son finished pre-school (we have preschool, so before going to school, they go to preschool), the preschool teacher came up to me, unbidden, and said, "Larissa, normally, we spend a lot of time in the cubby house sorting out fights between kids in the cubby house, wanting dolls, et cetera". However, that year, both the teacher and her assistant noticed that they didn't seem to spend as much time in the cubby house. They observed, apparently, that what had been happening was that my son was in there, mediating conflict.

He'd say, "Well, you're unhappy about wanting the doll, and you want the doll. Can you think of anything where you'd both be happy? How about something you can both play with?"

Casey: So great. Well, and I think what's showing up for me in listening to you is, it just speaks to the impact that we have on the world, simply in our own personal parenting practices, because we are raising children who are showing up in classrooms; showing up on ball teams; showing up in extracurricular activities; eventually, will be showing up in the workforce with different kinds of tools: tools that bring people together, tools that come from a place of recognizing and appreciating the power of cooperation and emotional intelligence. It's big. It's big.

Larissa: It's so important. I think work like James Heckman shows the importance of social and emotional skills, and I think that, more and more, the buzzword seems to be soft skills; that is what is most appreciated by employers now - and that's what we do. We teach relationship skills: how to listen; how to be respectfully assertive; and, how to problem solve; (that's another one of those buzz skills, I think, that employers are really looking for - problem solving).

I think part of this is also helping our children problem solve for themselves if they're in a situation which they have no control over; so, we can help them by saying, "Well, how can you make it better for yourself? For example, if they have to go to the dentist and can't bear the thought of it. “It's really awful, and now you're really afraid of going to the dentist. What can we do to help you make it a less scary experience? What do you need?” Helping them seeing for themselves what they need to do.

Casey: I love that, and I think that some of the time, there's this impression that if you're raising kids without using rewards and punishment, you just must be permissive, as if there must not be any boundaries or expectations, so I think it's really important to highlight that that is not what we're talking about.

I'm hearing you say, “You're going to the dentist. You're going to the dentist, and how can we make this work for you?" It's not about not having any expectations and not having any boundaries.

I think that parents... I'm just thinking, sometimes when I do podcasts, I can like hear the parents talking in my ear, and I hear them saying, "Well, yeah, but you can say that, and then, what if they refuse?" It takes a trust in the process and it trust in the relationship and a trust in the child, like you said at the beginning, in that innate goodness, in that innate desire, that hardwired brain; our brains are hardwired for connection and relationship. It's hardwired for cooperation. I think that parents get in the way of that because of their own fears or projection into the future, but yeah, we're not talking about permissive parenting. We're talking about expectations and boundaries and working with, like you said, doing ‘with’ versus ‘to’.

Two of the tools that have been probably the most powerful, other than just simply the relationship that I'm nurturing with my kids, is creating routines and agreements with my children, with the understanding that they'll be helpful for as long as they're helpful, and then they'll stop being helpful, and then we get to renegotiate the routine and agreement.

Moving from punishment and reward to relationship-based parenting. Problem Solving.

What are some of the tools that you would suggest for helping parents who are listening make the shift away from rewards and punishment, and towards relationship-based parenting?

Larissa: I think I've covered many of them in terms of, first of all, changing the way we think about children. That would be number one.

Then, listening to children; so, thinking about needs, thinking of conflict in terms of competing needs.

Casey: I love that. Competing needs... conflict. I'm writing that down.

Larissa: That means we have to understand both what the needs of our children are, and what our needs are, and that's why it's not permissive (as people see the lack of punishment or reward). If it was permissive parenting, then it would all be about the child, but we're looking at competing needs. I have needs as a parent, you have needs as a child; so, to discern what the child's needs are, we need to listen really deeply - to understand where they're coming from, what their needs are. As parents, we need to listen to ourselves, really, and then deliver that in an I-Message so that we understand what our needs are, and our children. This helps us both know each other.

Then there's a six step, no-lose conflict resolution process that P.E.T would take you through. Sometimes, as a parent, once you understand where your child's coming from, and there's not really a problem, then you might willingly change your position. Similarly, your child understands you, and they might willingly say, "Oh right, okay, Mum's unhappy about that. I won't do it.”

However, if neither of you have changed your behaviour, then you’ll have a shared problem. That's when you can go into the six steps of problem solving, which is pretty much: understanding each other's needs, then brainstorming solutions (but not evaluating, just letting them come out); then evaluating the solutions; choosing a solution; and then setting it up so that will take place.

Then, I think [step]number six is a really important step - and you've already spoken about it - is to come back and check the results. It’s so easy, I think, for parents to say, "Oh, look, we went through all of this and then it didn't work, and they didn't keep to their end of the bargain.” But that's because things might have changed.

Casey: Well, I'm just also thinking about the word... I've been noticing the word “worked”, like it ‘worked’ or it ‘didn't work’. So listeners, I would like to invite you into shifting your language and instead of thinking about what's going to work, think about what's going to be helpful. I notice that when I talk to my kids, or I think about challenging situations or working through it with them, when I look from the lens of what's going to be helpful, it feels a lot less manipulative. I get to move away from, how can I control this, into, how can I be in partnership? That's what was on my mind.

Larissa: It's much more inclusive. I really like that.

Casey: Thank you so much for coming and chatting with me about this. I have one last question. What does joyful courage mean to you, Larissa?

Larissa: That's a great question. I think that this is what it takes to be a child growing up in an adult's world, and it's something we so often forget.

Children, they're powerless, and it takes courage for them to say ‘no’ when we're the huge person in their life and when they think they might get into trouble; and yet, they're the most joyful beings on the planet. In the face of the most dire situation, children can somehow find that spark of joy that they can wring out from terrible situations.

As a parent, I suppose it takes the courage of conviction to parent against the flow of accepted parenting opinion and practice, and the joy comes when you see your children flower and grow - sometimes despite your many mistakes.

Casey: Thank you so much again. This was such a pleasure. Where can listeners find you and follow the work that you're doing?

Larissa: I have a website. Parent Skills, www.parentskills.com.au, and I also have a Facebook page, Instagram and Pinterest.

Thank you so much, Casey. It's just been lovely, and thank you listeners for taking the time to listen to us.

Words said by Larissa Dann © Larissa Dann, 2017.



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