The traditional approach of rewarding good behaviour and punishing bad behaviour is damaging our children’s emotional health, says Jane Evans. It’s time to re-think the way we parent
For the past few years I have been exploring the idea that traditional parenting – based on rewarding behaviours we want more of and giving consequences or punishments for behaviours we want less of – does not offer children the best long- or short-term emotional health outcomes. This approach has been around for hundreds of years so why question it now, especially considering the popularity of Supernanny, who uses a clearly defined reward/consequence-based model using a naughty step and reward charts that are easy for adults to grasp and put into place?
This traditional approach hinges on teaching compliance and conformity in order to keep others happy, and doesn’t leave room to explore feelings. Being told off, punished and temporarily rejected by the person a child needs to feel emotionally closest to can be confusing for them, and can drive a wedge into the child–parent relationship. Paediatric psychologist and author of The Family Coach Method Dr Lynne Kenney told me: ’We can secure compliance in the short-term with punishment, but if we wish to raise ethical, competent, skilful children we need to teach them how to identify and manage their emotions.’
If we are teaching children that in order to be acceptable to adults they have to get things right, and right can vary, then what are we setting them up for in life? Surely, the greatest long-term benefits come from teaching children to consider their own and others’ feelings, as this matches a pre-wired natural desire we are all born with to connect with others. Children naturally want to please others, especially those who care for them, as this helps them get their survival needs met. Giving a child insight into the feelings caused if they hit another child, snatch a toy, or run up a huge phone bill can be more beneficial as it taps in to the drive to stay connected.
If we don’t explore feelings with children from birth onwards on a regular basis, how will they develop the ability to know what led up to their outburst or meltdown, or the effect this had on another person? There is a danger that they will develop into adults who are unable to express empathy and seem cold, and who could potentially manipulate their way through life, over-ride their own feelings and put themselves in vulnerable situations.
‘The most vital element in socialising children is for parents to talk about the child’s emotions and help the child to think about what other people might be feeling,’ says psychotherapist Sue Gerhardt, author of Why Love Matters and The Selfish Society. ‘Research has shown that if the mother talks about her child’s own feelings, there is more chance that her child will develop a sense of conscience.’
How a child feels is often overlooked and ‘bad’ behaviour becomes a cause for concern and the focus for attention. Children’s behaviour is all about learning and communicating with the wider world and is shaped by our responses and interactions with them. If they snatch a toy from another child, rather than shaming them, it may be more helpful to give them an insight into the feelings around it. Try saying, ‘We need to wait for a turn as Jack looks sad now – were you feeling worried about not having your turn? What can we do to help Jack feel better?’ rather than ‘Don’t snatch off poor Jack. Now you’ve upset him – you need to learn to share with others. Come away and play with this instead.’ Everyone’s feelings are explored and the message about waiting for a turn is delivered without the child being made to feel bad.
If we don’t encourage a child’s ability to consider, express and understand their own and others’ feelings, we do them a great dis-service. These qualities open doors, keep us mentally well and allow us to connect emotionally with others, forming stress-free relationships at work and at home. Maybe it’s time we moved towards a feelings-based model of parenting that teaches a child how to behave with kindness and acceptability.