PUNISH OR REWARD?


WHY PUNISHMENT AND REWARDS DO NOT TEACH US HOW TO LIVE TOGETHER


When we use punishment and rewards (even consequences) it is often a way of trying to control another person’s behavior.  As parents, we often see our role as one of disciplinarian or teacher/coach.  We could then conclude that we are the ones who know better, who understand right from wrong, who have the task of teaching the rules of social order to our charges. The problem, however, is when we discipline using rewards and punishment or consequences designed to control. This approach arises from a very limited understanding of how learning to be a contributing member of one’s community actually takes place.  Alfred Adler’s theory, sheds some great insights with the ideas of self determination, our need to belong and purposiveness of behavior.  He postulates that human behavior is goal oriented, which is very important, because it points out our movement towards a desired outcome.

I’ve chosen to use the example by author/blogger Mark Manson, who wrote a Blog on “How to grow the fuck up: A guide to humans”. In this example, he is a four year old toddler, who steals and devours the entire bucket of ice cream from the freezer.  Describing the experience as pure ecstasy and the joy, as having discovered the pleasure of a sugar high. However, when his mom catches him in the act, she is infuriated. He concludes that getting in trouble and having mom’s anger and disapproval may not be worth the prior pleasure.  

If our goal is seeking pleasure in life and it is compromised, we will find other ways to get it.  The goal and desire for pleasure will not go away, but now it needs to happen in a way that does not upset important people in our lives. We might become more secretive and manipulative, or we might negotiate the terms for getting what we want.  Of course, if none of that works we might at some point openly rebel.  Because what we learned was not why we can’t just eat the entire bucket of ice cream, what we learned is that we can’t make mom angry.  What we came to understand is that in order to get what we want (which by the way boils down to love and belonging, our basic human need), is by not losing the disapproval of the ones we want to have a connection with. We learn to have relationships, based on power differentials and control and not in terms of equal worth and real connection, OUCH!!  
“So the little kid steals the ice cream because it feels good, oblivious to the consequences. The older child stops himself from stealing it because he knows it will create worse consequences in the future. But his decision is ultimately part of a bargain with his future self: ‘I’ll forgo some pleasure now to prevent greater future pain’. But it’s only the adult who doesn’t steal for the simple principle that stealing is wrong. And to steal — even if they got away with it! — would make them feel worse about themselves.”  -Mark Manson

Agreed, but why does it make us, the adult, feel worse when we do things such as stealing, lying, cheating etc.?

“This is essentially what good early parenting boils down to: implementing the correct consequences for a child’s pleasure/pain-driven behavior. Punish them for stealing ice cream. Reward them for sitting quietly in a restaurant. You are, quite literally, helping them to understand that life is far more complicated than simply pursuing one’s pleasure and avoiding one’s pain.  Parents who fail to do this fail their children in an incredibly fundamental way because, as children grow up, they will experience the shocking realization that the world does not cater to their whims. 
This will be incredibly painful for them, far more painful than it would have been had they learned the lesson when they were younger. And as a result, by having to learn this lesson at an older age, they will be socially punished by their peers for not understanding it. Nobody wants to be friends with a selfish brat. Nobody wants to work with someone who doesn’t consider others’ feelings or appreciate rules.” -Mark Manson

Yes!  We do not want a community full of selfish brats who think they can do whatever they want, however, how to not end up there is the question.  Having worked in several different fields with people of all walks of life, where I have come across a multitude of kids and adults of all backgrounds, socioeconomic and otherwise of all ages, I have seen quite often how our social order has been severely disrupted.  What I mean by that is that things that you and I might think should be unacceptable are not. Society itself can become diseased.  Unfortunately this is being perpetuated by the very idea of rewards and punishment.  External controls that promote right or wrong, as defined by existing social norms, (such as the value we’ve attached to money and power) rather than (and you did mention it in your Blog) empathy and compassion in order to create a feeling of community.

What we need to teach is that our actions impact those around us and that taking an interest in one another is, as the Dali Lama puts it, in our very own self interest.  We are all interconnected and we need each other to survive.  So the fact that you ate all the ice cream, means that there was non left for mom and dad or maybe your brothers and sisters.  If you care and love them, wouldn’t you want them to have the same pleasure of the, milky, sugary, delicious ice cream, you were enjoying.  Maybe you didn’t think about that at the time,  I get it I was four once also, but there is the important lesson.  What I would have done ,Mark ,and not to diss. your mom, because it is ultimately better to punish, than to pamper and let your child do whatever they want; After having you help clean up the mess in the kitchen and taking a bath, we would have proceeded with a family meeting to figure out the problem: No ice cream left, and now no one else can enjoy some.  One possible solution; you can use your allowance, or even if you didn’t, we can find a way for you to earn some money and you can replace the ice cream.  Now all of us (maybe on Friday after a nice family dinner) can enjoy some ice cream.

The lesson: The child hopefully learns to be socially interested in their fellow man/woman.  They realize that they play an important part, either helpful or not.  The goal may still be seeking pleasure, but now the pleasure extends to knowing that I have helped other people to enjoy something that I enjoy.  Either way you count, you belong, you are loved.  You just kind of screwed up when you ate all the ice cream.  But hey we all have occasionally screwed up and now you know how you can fix it.  You’ve just earned back your “humanity”.  If we feel shitty as you mention we do, as adults when we know we've done something hurtful and disconnecting, we can feel OK again when we go back and face up to our mistakes, transgressions, whatever it is we screwed up and make it right again.  As Adler puts it, our jobs as parents is to shift the interest of the child from himself/herself, onto his/her parents and onto society, he called it “Gemeinshaftsgefuhl” (a feeling of community).


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