Behind the Scenes of Control

We have looked at punishment and rewards and studied how both are supposed to work and the one word we came across again and again is the word control. In several Family Connection issues we touched upon control but never really looked at it “behind the scenes” of punishment and rewards. Let’s do this now.

There are two types of control in the adult-child relationship, external control (adult discipline) and inner control (self discipline). Parents (and teachers) who manage and dispense rewards and punishments can be said to use extrinsic rewards and punishments for the external control of children. Those who do not use rewards and punishments but instead strive to increase the children’s capability to find their own pleasant (or realize unpleasant) consequences can be said to use intrinsic rewards and punishments. Those parents and teachers are helping the youngsters to develop inner control. In spite of substantial research showing that rewards and punishments do not yield the long term results desired, we are still mostly a society heavily committed to external control and sadly deficient in promoting inner control.

The concept of adults arranging for (or engineering) aversive consequences is still at the heart of most parent-training programs, may they be called Positive Parenting, Love and Logic or STEP… Many of these programs heavily borrow from P.E.T., in particular the conflict-resolution skills, but still due to their advocacy of punishment remain fundamentally different from what P.E.T. has to offer. Most of these contemporary parenting programs advise to use punishment but warn against making it too severe, against doing it frequently and against doing it in anger. However, as research has shown, punishment will only work for a limited time, that is, if in fact it is applied frequently and severe enough to be aversive and applied at the moment immediately after the unacceptable behavior has occurred (the moment parents are dealing with their anger). This is simply bad advice, to first insist to use punitive discipline, but then literally insure that it won’t work by suggesting making it weak, infrequent and non-aversive. So, what is the answer to this dilemma? What can be done with our children to inspire functional self-discipline that works?