Recently I received a very insightful email from one of my subscribers in response to an email that I’d sent which mentioned “taking away” rewards from children who contravene the agreements made when establishing behavior contracts. The paraphrased version of the email sent to me by this subscriber, let’s call her Ms X (Hello Ms X!), went something like this:
“I understand that the best practice when using behavior contracts and other such positive reinforcement programs dictates that rewards are NOT taken away from a child… doing so can discourage the child and make them feel frustrated…” And Ms X also specifically states “Poor behavior generally makes the achievement of agreed goals more difficult anyway, and maintaining a commitment to positive parenting means children need to be reminded and encouraged that they can do better…”
My response to Ms X was as follows:
“Hi (MS X)
Thank you so much for your email… I really appreciate the feedback!
Yes I completely agree with everything you say, and in most situations these are the ideals I would encourage whenever implementing a reward plan, particularly with younger children.
I’ve found that, good or bad, some parents like a little more control over how a reward plan should run its course, and using behavior contracts or a token economy system, gives them the flexibility to alter the requirements of the plan, before reaching the point of the reward (or goal). So if one night their child reneges on their agreed task or agreement (feeding the dog, completing 1 hr of homework, putting their dirty clothes in the wash basket, not yelling to make their point, not swearing, helping with the dishes, etc etc) then they either lose a set number of “tokens”, or they simply don’t receive whatever incentive item (sticker, token, points, etc) that gets them closer to their end-goal, or reward. If the next day they follow through on their agreement, then the opportunity is there to really heap praise out them, “I know after last night it must have been especially difficult to get back on board, you’ve done fantastically well tonight, I think you deserve extra tokens (or points)”
So in many ways this approach isn’t so much taking away an earned reward, it’s more about making the final reward harder to earn because the child is required to “follow” the agreement of the contract, or whatever reward plan is in place. This also can give the child more of a sense of “control” over the plan, and that they are actively involved in the outcome, and it’s not all reliant on the arbitrary judgments and rulings of Mum and Dad. And it can make the end-goal or reward that much sweeter. Of course whatever final reward they receive or reward item that they “purchase” with their accumulated points or tokens, should be considered sacrosanct.. I one-hundred percent agree with you…
My feeling are that these more fluid and pliant reward plans are more suited to older children and require a comprehensive up-front discussion about how it will work, and what’s expected from the child as well as from the parents. If everyone is clear about the goals and requirements of the plan (ie you can gain points, you can lose points, while on the path to the whatever end-goal has been established) then it’s more likely that everyone will “stay-the-path.” I’ve found that one way to maintain the motivation and reduce the overwhelm in the face of lost points or tokens, is to set a limit on what can be taken away (for example no more than 5 points can be taken away at any one time.) Often this can have the effect of being an unintended motivation, as in “I’ve only lost 5 points, I can easily make that back and more tomorrow.”
Also, these types of reward plans will not work for all children, and parents need to match the plan with their child’s age, developmental level, and personality. Surprisingly, sometimes defiant or oppositional children can really jump on board with these type of reward plans because they feel less “controlled”, and more “in control” of the workings of the plan. Perhaps it helps them to feel more like the “Master of their own destiny” beyond the overwhelm and difficulties of other aspects of their life…
I also believe that taking away tokens or points for unacceptable behaviors can completely adhere to a positive parenting framework, as long as it’s done not in the way of punishment, but in terms of the behavior “contravening” the rules of the contract or reward plan. In this spirit, the parents become the “guardian” (sorry, couldn’t think of a better word :-)) of the contract, but not the arbiter of what’s right and wrong… the elements of the contract (already discussed and agreed to) serves this role. I do realize that some parents are more enlightened than others, and some find it hard to see beyond the routine of punishment.
And it’s also true that many parents are uncomfortable with this aspect of these particular types of reward plans, but the truth is that the loss of points for “unacceptable behaviors” part of the plan can be bypassed. Just earning points or tokens for good behavior, good actions, thoughtfulness etc, and cashing them in for earned rewards is also fantastic.
In fact the way I use my token economy system with my children, is completely unstructured. I only use the tokens for “catching” them being good…or kind…or sharing…or polite…or thoughtful…and so on, and I don’t take them away (only when they “buy” a reward activity or item.) I find this method of encouraging good behaviors with my children, is a great fit for me and for my kids.
Sorry for the long reply. I didn’t plan on it, but your thought provoking comments (which I greatly appreciate and respect) really got me thinking… Thank you!
Ms X works as a professional in the childhood field and her feedback was most welcome. It also gave me a chance to address this question to the wider readership of this website.
Now as you can tell by my response I believe that there are many shades and nuances involved in positive discipline within a positive parenting framework, and the reward plans and programs involving older or more “sophisticated” kids can operate effectively outside of the more “black and white” structures of the reward plans involving younger children…
Of course any feedback is most welcome, and I can be personally contacted through my Contact Page link.