What Rewards and Punishments Do To Our Relationships


In the last issues of The Family Connection we have looked at how rewards and punishment are supposed to work. We have established that controlling with rewards or punishments requires that the controller be in possession of the appropriate means to either meet the needs of the child or deprive the child of meeting those needs. It’s a simple matter of need fulfillment and need deprivation, externally engineered or managed by the controller. Since the controller usually holds exclusive title to the means of need fulfillment or deprivation he or she has the upper hand and unquestioned mastery in the relationship. This always leads to an unequal relationship.

More importantly even, the controller decides which behaviors he or she judges as acceptable or unacceptable, which behaviors are to be reinforced by rewards as well as those to be weakened by punishment. For this kind of control to be effective, the child must be kept in a continuous state of dependency and fear – dependent on the controller for the rewards he or she can offer, fearful of the punishments he or she can inflict. The child must also be kept locked in the relationship, unable to get for himself or herself what the controller has to give and unable to escape the controller’s feared punishment.

For example, a mother employing candy or food to reinforce a child’s doing his chores or homework would lose her power to control if the child had access to all the candy or food he or she wanted. As children get older and acquire the ability to earn money and buy their own snacks, parents stand to lose much of this power. Equally, if the child is old enough to just leave the house when given “time out” that punishment no longer holds value. This sequence happens in all families and classrooms in many shapes and forms. Maturing children tend to find ways to avoid or escape adult punishment thus parents and teachers lose their power by running out of punishments that will be severe enough or aversive enough to control youngsters.

Relationships based on unequal power are very unstable and transitory, because they provoke the very counteractions that will undermine and weaken the power of the controller. One of the most common counteractions is dissent. Controllers may squelch it for a time, but it merely goes underground to emerge later as outright rebellion. We see teenagers rebelling against parent’s use of power to change them or mold them in their image, against adults’ coercing them to act according to what they, adults, think is right or wrong. When this happens the puzzled parents wonder why they have lost their ability to control their kids.

How often have you heard a parent complain: “Jim used to be such a good kid but now that he’s older he doesn’t care what we think or say.”? What that statement really means is that the parents have no more power to control him and because they have never learned to influence him they now feel impotent.