Do you use the carrot or the stick for changing your child’s behaviour?

June 9, 2009

From the American Counselling Association. Sponsored by the ACA Foundation

NO parent enjoys constantly warning or threatening his or her child, yet many children do seem programmed to drive mum and dad crazy, at least some of the time. So how can parents encourage good behaviours without shouting themselves hoarse?

Our usual reaction to a misbehaving child is often toward the side of anger, focusing on the negative and warning, ordering or threatening the child to behave.

Sometimes we issue warnings and threats before the child has misbehaved. A young child may be told: “If you don’t behave at grandpa’s birthday party today, you’ll be sorry,” while an older child might be threatened with: “Forget to turn in one more homework assignment and you’re grounded for a week!”

Studies find such warnings, threats and punishments are generally not very effective in modifying behaviour. Yes, a loudly yelled order may halt the immediate misbehaving, but it seldom makes a long-lasting difference in how your child acts.

Researchers find rewards are more effective in terms of achieving desired behaviours. This shouldn’t be surprising. As adults, we don’t like being lectured, threatened or punished, but often work harder and look forward to opportunities to do well, be recognised and reap a reward for our efforts. We all perform better when we feel good about ourselves.

Children respond in the same way. For young children rewards that immediately follow the desired behaviour are most effective simply because delayed gratification is too abstract for a young child’s mind to grasp. Older children, however, are able to look forward to something promised.

Rewards can take a variety of forms. While it can be something tangible, like a new book or CD, effective rewards can also cost nothing. Catch your child in the act of doing something positive and compliment him or her. Or pay more attention to that school work and offer praise when real effort is being shown. Sincere compliments and praise really work, and so do rewards like spending extra time with your child for a special activity, or just granting extra play or TV time for doing well.

Rewards shouldn’t be bribes, but rather a means to encourage positive behaviours so that they become long-term behaviours. To help that happen, don’t reward constantly, since that just makes the rewarding less meaningful. And remember to reward positive efforts, not just final outcomes. Trying hard counts as much as succeeding.

Use rewards correctly and you’ll find that they can be much more effective, and pleasant, than constant shouting, threatening and punishments.


  • “The Counselling Corner” is provided as a public service by the American Counselling Association. Learn more about the counselling profession at the ACA web site,

Plunket Barnardos Save the Children Unicef Jigsaw Ririki Parents CentrePaediatric Society Womens Refuge Epoch

Popular Subjects on this site

Legal compliance

If you are going to use or distribute material from our campaign in any way, eg remixed or mashed up, please ensure that your actions are compliant with the relevant legislation, as the Yes Vote Coalition cannot take responsibility for actions beyond our control or knowledge.

The bottom line is that we want to play by the rules. We appreciate your support, but please act ethically, thoughtfully, and within the law.

Please see our Legal Disclaimer for more information.