Yesterday morning a fight with my five-year-old daughter left us both in floods of tears. The cause of the battle? I’d promised her a new book if she got ready for school on her own. When she refused to put her shoes and socks on, I took the book away, setting off a tantrum that would have made any toddler proud. In the end, she had to be carried to the car, kicking and screaming. By the time we got to school I felt like I’d run a marathon. I got back into my car and burst into tears of frustration. I’d set a clear boundary of expectation, offered a reward for the completion of the task, given her plenty of time and then held my ground, even though it was tempting to give in just to get her in the car. Where had I gone so wrong?

“It sounds like there were two five-year-olds in the car by the end,” educator and founder of Mindful Parenting Joanne Jewell says gently when I seek her advice. “I’m struggling to understand what taking away the book had to do with getting ready for school.

“Coming in with a punishment that in no way reflects the behaviour you’re trying to curb doesn’t teach your child anything. Remember, when your child is upset they’re not doing it because they want to annoy you. They’re doing it because they’re reacting to a feeling they’re having. What we have to understand is that young children are all about emotion and the best way to calm them down is empathy and compassion.”

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The Treat Trap

Parenting using punishments and rewards in the way that ended so disastrously for me is a system familiar to us all. The chances are we were parented using this technique or we do it ourselves. But it’s now coming under increasing criticism, with new research suggesting it can leads to materialistic children with a decreased sense of wellbeing as adults.

“Our research suggests that children who receive many material rewards from their parents will likely continue rewarding themselves with material goods when they are grown – well into adulthood – and this could be problematic,” says professor of marketing at the University of Missouri, Marsha Richins, the author of a recent study, which suggests material parenting can make children more insecure and less able to cope as adults.

“Children who receive rewards are more likely than others to use possessions to define and enhance themselves,” Marsha Richins continues. Even with the best intentions, material punishments or rewards should not be your first line of defense as parents.”

In a place like the UAE, where shopping is practically a national sport, it’s even more important not to let material parenting take over. “Dubai certainly has a reputation for being materialistic,” says clinical psychologist at the Lighthouse Center for Wellbeing, Dr Rose Logan. “One of the biggest concerns with that consumerism is that having ‘the right stuff’ becomes a source of self-worth and value. So rather than building a robust, internalised sense of yourself, you depend on external factors and outcomes. This makes us fragile and susceptible to psychological distress.”

“When we use rewards, we remove the need for self-motivation,” agrees Joanne Jewell. “Material rewards teach our kids to be motivated externally instead.”

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In addition to hampering their motivation, our tendency to swoop in with a reward for a job well done could silence the inner voice they need to help them through tricky situations later in life. “Everything we say to our children becomes their internal voice,” says Joanne Jewell. “Rather than giving them something to make them do something, we should give them the right kind of praise for the effort they’ve put into it instead.

“Whenever we praise we need to be asking ourselves whether the words we’re using are ones that the child can repeat to themselves later when they hit a challenge. Will our words get them through it?”

“Praise and pride in our children’s behaviour is a valuable way to develop their sense of self-worth. Providing positive rewards in this way does not require material goods,” Dr Rose Logan points out. “If we continue to give material objects as a reward for everything a child does, they will learn not to have a sense of value in their own achievement and may not develop feelings such as pride in their efforts or attempts. It’s also concerning that material offerings may start to be given in lieu of emotional support and connection.”

Talking to both experts, it’s clear that using material offerings as punishments and rewards is riddled with issues. So why do so many of us do it?

“The biggest problem with the punishment and reward model is that it seems to work,” says Joanne Jewell. “We see an instant result. The child wants the treat so we think it’s worked. But reaching for the instant fix means we’re missing the opportunity to connect with our child and manage the situation. Our key job as parents is to teach children what their emotions are and how to handle them. Punishment and rewards is not the way to do that.” 

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