We’re back with a new episode in our Parenting series and we’re talking about punishments, rewards, and autonomy. For most kids, life is a series of expectations: when and what to eat, when to sleep, what to learn, how to learn it. This loss of autonomy can cause disconnection with a child’s inner knowing. Punishments and rewards, too, are designed to influence children’s choices. How could things feel different if we didn’t try to control our children? What we’ve found is that stepping away from that control leads to better understanding about the individuals in our families, and so much amazing learning.
We hope today’s episode sparks some fun insights for you and we invite you to dive deeper with our Episode Questions. Join us on Instagram or YouTube to continue the conversation and share your reflections.
Let’s dig deep, challenge paradigms, choose connection, and live joyfully!
1. Think back to when you were a child. Did you get to make many choices about your days? If so, how did it feel? Did you feel empowered? Trusted? If not, how did it feel? Frustrating? Like you weren’t trusted to make good choices? And who got to define “good”?
2. Were you punished as a child? If so, how did it feel? How did it play out for you? Did you spend your punishment time contemplating your “crime”? Or being angry with the person who set the punishment, feeling it was unfair? Over time, did you absorb the message that you were a bad person in general for getting in trouble? Were you more likely to continue the “crime” but hide it from your parents?
3. Did your parents reward you pretty regularly growing up? If so, looking back, does it feel like they were trying to use rewards to control or behavior and/or choices? Did you find that the rewards influenced your behavior or choices at the time? What, if any, impact did that have as an adult?
4. I find it so interesting to consider the relationship between a child’s autonomy and their learning about themselves as a human being. I encourage you to take a couple minutes to start brainstorming a list of the things you can imagine a child learning through making choices and seeing how things unfold. I think once you get the ball rolling it may well be hard to stop!
PAM: Hello! And welcome to the Living Joyfully Podcast! Navigating relationships can sometimes be challenging, because people are so different. Thanks for joining us as we dive into tools, strategies, and paradigm shifts to help you decrease conflict and increase connection in your most important relationships.
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So, this episode is part of our Parenting series and we’re going to be diving into the ideas of punishments, rewards, and autonomy and how they weave together. And while we’re talking about this in the context of parenting, it’s equally valuable when it comes to any relationships.
So, let’s start with the bigger picture of autonomy.
And so that we’re starting on the same page, I see personal or individual autonomy just as the freedom to make choices and pursue a chosen course of action. Fundamentally, it’s how human beings learn: by making choices and seeing how they unfold. Sometimes things go smoothly, unfolding how we anticipated. And sometimes they go completely sideways. And most times, it’s somewhere in between the two.
But each time, we learn something. Maybe it’s about the choice itself, maybe it’s about the execution, maybe it’s about the environment, maybe it’s about ourselves—the list is vast. Yet when we’ve made the choice, we’re learning something meaningful, or at least useful, to us. And that’s at all ages, kids included.
So, when someone else makes the choices for us, which often happens for kids—choices like what they can do and what they eat and who they play with and what they wear and when they sleep—they learn different things. They learn less about themselves—their likes and dislikes, how their body likes to be fueled, how they like to express themselves, how they like to explore the world, how they prefer to engage with others—and more about their parents’ expectations.
Maybe they feel the rub and bristle at the line or limit their parents hold for them, but, certainly when they’re younger, they aren’t able to explore where they might draw that line for themselves. What is their personal comfort zone around the thing?
When we don’t get to make lots of choices as we go about our days, we don’t learn a lot about ourselves, adults or children alike.
ANNA: Oh my gosh, yes. And I’m really excited that we are talking about this! Because I think it’s something that doesn’t get a lot of play in parenting circles. Autonomy is such a critical piece of our human experience. And, like you said, it really is where the learning happens.
Understanding ourselves and our bodies is so important to overall life satisfaction, yet we systematically disconnect kids from this inner knowing from a very young age. For most kids, life is a series of expectations: when to eat, when to sleep, what to learn, how to learn it. And so, I agree, the learning that is happening is, ‘How do I please the people around me and do what is expected?’ And we learn this because it’s how I survive and how I get love.
You will have the personalities that will buck against it, but those personalities are often maligned and made to feel there is something wrong with them, when it’s much more about the environment not being a fit, than it is that there is something wrong with that particular child.
And I want to say that I understand that often the guidance given by adults comes from a place of love and protection. We want the best for our kids. We want to protect them. We want them to learn things that we think will help them in life. But it doesn’t take much examination to recognize that this is just not how humans learn.
How many of us have had a well-meaning parent or spouse tell us that we should be doing something this way, or, this is how it’s done, or this is what’s best for you? And how often did that leave us feeling disconnected from that person, misunderstood, and sometimes even just irritated at the suggestion?
But we can offer our best information as part of what they take in to make their choice, understanding how different everyone is and that they may need to move through situations in ways that sometimes don’t even make sense to us. That’s the path to honoring each person in our lives as individuals. We can share and we can leave space for it to unfold in a different way for the person in our lives.
When we have an agenda, and especially when we punish someone (as is often the case for children) for not meeting our expectations or following with our agenda, it is a huge blow to learning and autonomy and often the relationship as a whole.
PAM: Oh yeah. It really is. And I want to talk more about punishments, because, while obviously affecting autonomy, they also don’t often teach the “lesson” that parents really are, out of love, trying to impart.
The obvious impact on autonomy is that a punishment is designed to control the other person’s—most often a child’s—choices. Things like, “If you do this thing I don’t want you to do, I’ll punish you by making you do a thing you don’t want to do, like go to your room.” Or, “If you don’t do this thing I want you to do, I’ll take away a thing that you want to do, like taking away access to your tech device of choice.”
In that way, it can seem a little bit like tit for tat. The thinking seems to be that trying to relate the punishment with the crime somehow makes the punishment more effective while also giving the child “time to think about what they’ve done.”
Yet, in my experience, bringing punishment into the mix quickly focuses the conversation on the punishment: the details of the punishment (what, how long), whether it feels “fair,” and the execution (“go to your room,” “give me your tablet” and so on).
And then there’s the whole stage of policing the punishment: making sure they stay in their room, hiding the tablet so they don’t find it, and responding to the child’s pleas to end the punishment early. That focus shift to the punishment actually means that most of the child’s learning is about how to navigate punishments. Not just the pleading, but how not to get caught next time, or, having learned what the parent didn’t like, concocting a story that they hope will help them avoid punishment next time.
Just go back and see how very little of the child’s thoughts and learning are focused on the choice and action that sparked all this in the first place? What if, instead of jumping to punishment, the parent engaged in a conversation with the child? Getting curious about what they were trying to accomplish and why, talking about the context of their choice, sharing the pieces it seems they hadn’t considered when they made their choice, and about how things unfolded—is this actually what they were expecting to happen? That is where so much rich and valuable learning lies.
ANNA: Oh my goodness. Yes. 100%. There is so much learning lost with punishment. It shifts the focus from what was done, to the parent or person who is punishing. When they’re in their room, they aren’t thinking about the actions that got them there. They’re thinking about the person who put them there.
Let’s say even with an extreme example of a child or teen doing something that harms another person. Then say the punishment is to take away their device or take away their car if we’re talking about a teen. The focus of the child is now on the fact that their car has been taken away and all of the problems that will cause them. They most likely will be angry at the person who is wielding this power over them.
If, instead, like you were talking about, we have a conversation about what happened and empower and even help them to make amends, they feel supported and connected and are learning how to repair after a mistake. And that is a skill that will serve them in every personal or professional relationship they will have, because we will always make mistakes. Humans make mistakes! And sometimes those mistakes hurt other people.
And I wanted my kids to feel my support, I know we all make mistakes. And I wanted them to know that I’d walk through the repair with them. My priority is always going to be our connection. Because it’s from that place of connection that we can navigate the tough stuff that life throws our way.
The minute you choose power and punishment over another person, you have lost them. They may still physically be there but they do not feel connected, supported, or understood. Life is going to throw a lot of curve balls at everyone. Learning how to stay connected through the tough stuff just makes things so much easier.
And if we find ourselves reaching for punishment as a tool to control situations, we can examine when we are try to control others and see it as red flag, as a sign to step back and see where maybe we’re feeling pinched, or where we’re feeling controlled. Because it’s so often when we’re feeling controlled that we clamp down on those around us.
But recognizing that, we can then turn to identifying our own underlying needs and begin to address them. We can look to the broader context. Are we feeling under-resourced? Are we feeling a bit disconnected? What’s happening contextually for us and for our children? Because, to me, it’s just really interesting think about, because punishment isn’t a tool we use in adult relationships. Power-over is not a healthy dynamic in any relationship. So, why not start learning the skills of communication and understanding with our kids? Those are the skills they will need, so let’s spend our life practicing them together.
PAM: I just want to highlight one of the things that you said there, that piece that when we find ourselves reaching for control with enthusiasm, so often it’s worth taking a moment to just ask, are there places in my life where I’m feeling a little out of control? Where I feel like someone else is controlling me? Because that energy, I can be shifting and turning outward. So, it’s like, okay, I don’t feel like I have a lot of control here. I want to get back that feeling of control and maybe in a completely different way, but these are all my emotions. So, they’re balancing out in me. If I don’t have it here, I’m going to bring it here. So, that is always something that is interesting to look out for when we’re feeling that pull to punish.
When punishment is a well-used tool in the parenting toolbox, that is the process that kids learn for navigating conflict, for navigating these kinds of situations, and will be what they reach for, as you mentioned, in adult relationships.
So, no, they can’t send an adult friend to their room or take away their phone, but, as I was thinking about it, they do try other versions of that, the “silent treatment,” which ignores someone like they’re not there, and communicating, “I’m mad at you and don’t like what you did.” But it’s kind of like they’ve been sent to their room and, “You’re out of my life. I’m just going to ignore it.”
There are so many unhealthy relationship tools that adults use. They’re versions of punishment. Like, how can I punish this person in my life without being able to literally send them to their room?
ANNA: Right! It’s that blame/fault matrix that just carries over and it’s so destructive to personal relationships.
PAM: Exactly. So, definitely, we want to learn different tools growing up!
I also want to touch on rewards, because at first we can wonder. Rewards are positive things. How on earth could they affect a person’s autonomy and learning? But that’s the thing. Rewards are directly related to a thing a person, or child, is doing. And it’s natural for us to reward the things we like and ignore the things we’re indifferent about. Even if we’re not punishing the choices they’re making that we don’t like, when rewards are in the mix, they still get the message.
And many kids want to please their parents. They’re going to pick up on those subtle cues that “making this choice and doing this thing makes my parents happy so I should do more of it,” and conversely, noticing the choices they make that aren’t rewarded. So, they may choose to avoid those things, or do them out of sight so as not to feel judged by the parent’s indifference.
And at first we might think, “That’s great, a way to avoid outright punishments while still managing to manipulate our child’s choices in the direction we as parents believe are better.”
But again, let’s take a closer look at what they’re learning and how this approach might unfold over the years. The priority becomes learning the choices the parents do and don’t like. Wanting to please their parents, kids can find themselves making choices that, while they are regularly rewarded for them, they don’t particularly enjoy.
And I know we’ve all heard stories of kids who are talented in a particular area who grew up with the rewards and expectations of excelling in that sport or skill only to burn out in adulthood and needing to basically build a new life. See how the child’s autonomy can be subtly, but impactfully over-ridden.
If the child loves the activity, they don’t need regular external rewards to keep going. Sure, we definitely want to celebrate the accomplishments along the way that they are keen to celebrate! That’s the differentce. I feel like celebrations are so different from rewards. A celebration is focused on the child’s wishes, while a reward is based on the parent’s wishes. And just that perspective shift makes a world of difference, doesn’t it?
ANNA: It really does. And I think you’re right. That celebrating, we’re celebrating their experience, what they’re loving about something, what they’re bringing to us, versus the reward is this, like, “reach this point and you’re going to get this,” which is so external, you know, just the complete opposite of, you know, really doing something from inside your heart and what feels good to you.
And absolutely, rewards really are just the flip side of the whole manipulation/control coin. And I think our invitation today is to just consider why. Why do we need to control another person? I think one of my big growth areas years ago that took me some time was understanding that I do not know what’s best for another person. Not my spouse, not my kids. I know what’s best for me most of the time. Sometimes I still have to figure that out. But that’s it. Just me. I can only know what’s best for me.
And again, I can share the things I’ve learned along the way, why I’ve made the choices I’ve made, what happened when things went sideways and what I learned from that. That’s all super interesting information for somebody to have, but it doesn’t mean the same choices will end the same way for them. It doesn’t mean what works best for me will work best for them.
And rewards are interesting, because they do create this external focus that I think can disconnect us with what we truly want, what has meaning for us. And like you said, if you grow up in a reward environment, is it crystal clear what is being considered “good” and what is being considered “bad”. And kids learn what is needed to get the approval of their parents, because, again, there is an innate survival mechanism at play.
And my sincere hope was to empower my kids to listen to their bodies and their own inner voice to cultivate a connection with their own unique knowing. And any type of control I would throw in there, be it rewards or punishments, just served to cut them off from that knowing.
And I think many of us can think back and see how we had to relearn how to listen to our inner voice and to our bodies over the year. We’ve spent many years navigating systems and many times family dynamics as well that wanted to control our decisions and tell us what we wanted and what we should do or even who we should be. And it is a process to figure out what we actually wanted, the person we want to be, and to separate those from all of those outside voices.
And there is a different way and it fosters that inner knowing. And our children, kids are amazing and so capable! They have clear ideas of what they want and there really are reasons behind it. As we stay connected, have conversations, and learn more about them, we start to understand their choices. We start to really see it through their eyes.
And as we share our needs and hear theirs, then we can start working together to meet all the needs. This isn’t about handing control of the family to children. It’s not about control at all. It’s about everyone having autonomy over their life and time and working together to navigate being in relationship with one another. And again, I will just say, learning those skills throughout childhood, I see it in my adult daughters all the time and get feedback from those in their lives who also see that difference, because they’ve already had two decades of living this way.
PAM: Oh, yeah. That’s something I just keep saying over and over and over. Kids are so capable. Kids have reasons for the things they do. Kids are making choices, bringing together all they they know, what their experience has been so far, and they’re just trying something out. So, I think that’s so fascinating.
Parents can be really worried. “They’ll never make the right choice.” And as you mentioned, when you see through their eyes, you can see why this seemed to be a reasonable choice or a thing that they wanted to do. However, it unfolds, you can see why they went in that direction. It’s fascinating and they are so capable. I love that.
ANNA: And even if it goes sideways, if we’re staying connected to them, then we can talk about that learning. When we’re disconnected, we’re not able to have those conversations about, “Whew! That went sideways. What do I want to do differently next time?” Because they’re worried about being punished or they’re worried about us not being connected to them. And so, it’s such a lost opportunity when we use those tools of control versus connection.
PAM: It’s a lost opportunity, not only of learning for everyone, it’s a lost opportunity for connection. The connection you feel when you’re being supported by someone that you love, someone in your life who is with you when the things go sideways, where we’re not worried about punishments being meted out or rewards being withheld, but we’re just all there in the mess. In the moment and figuring out how we want to move through it.
Life will give us lots of experiences in that way, and we will learn so much about each other and the ways that we want to move through it, or the ways that are helpful for us to process and move through it and so on. So, it is just that so much is lost when we jump to punishments. Because, like we’ve been talking about this whole episode, that’s where everything goes, that’s where the focus goes, that’s where the conversation goes, that’s where the learning goes, all those pieces.
So, weaving together these ideas of rewards and punishments and autonomy, I’ve really enjoyed doing that, because I think it gives us such a richer picture of how children can learn so much about themselves and how they choose to engage with their world. It’s fascinating to ponder the often unintended impact of both punishments and rewards and how they can impinge on a child’s autonomy.
So, here are some questions to ponder this week around these ideas. Number one, think back to when you were a child. Did you get to make many choices about your days? And if so, how did it feel? Did you feel empowered? Did you feel trusted? If not, how did it feel? Was it frustrating? Did it feel like you weren’t trusted to make good choices? And who got to define good? That’s another big piece.
Question two, were you punished as a child? If so, how did it feel? How did it play out for you? Did you spend your punishment time contemplating your crime? Or being angry with the person who set the punishment, feeling it was unfair? Maybe you didn’t get a chance to explain your perspective. Over time, did you absorb the message that you were a bad person in general for getting in trouble? Were you more likely to continue the crime, but hide it from your parents?
Question three, did your parents reward you pretty regularly growing up? If so, looking back, does it feel like they were trying to use rewards to control your behavior or your choices? Did you find that the rewards influenced your behavior or choices at the time? What, if any, impact did that have on you as an adult? That’s so interesting.
And number four, I definitely find it so interesting to consider the relationship between a child’s autonomy and their learning about themselves as a human being. So, I encourage you to take a couple of minutes to start brainstorming a list of the things you can imagine a child learning through making choices and just seeing how things unfold.
And I do think once you get the ball rolling, it may well be hard to stop.
ANNA: I think so.
PAM: I think that will be a lot of fun. And it just, again, it gets us back to that open and curious mindset. It’s just like, you know what? Let’s just open things up and put on a new lens and just try things out and let’s just see what we discover.
ANNA: Because so often, what got us to the place of wanting to control and punish is just, that’s what we knew. And so, just try some new ideas and see how it impacts your relationships, see how it impacts just your life satisfaction, see how you all are learning new skills. I think it’ll be fun.
PAM: Anyway, thank you so much for listening, everyone. Bye!