Part1: Rewards, Incentives, Consequences, and Punishments (Oh, My!)

by Kelly Bartlett on August 31, 2010

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At a recent API meeting, a few moms asked questions about the differences between rewards and punishments which I thought was very useful.  We hadn’t specifically discussed them before, and it was helpful to define our understanding of the words we often hear regarding discipline.  Based on attachment parenting, positive discipline, and unconditional parenting, here is the break-down:

Rewards vs. Incentives:

A reward is something that is given conditionally; you only get X if you do Y. An incentive is letting someone know of an enjoyable activity that is soon to come.  As soon as Y is done, X happens.  The difference here is that enjoyable thing (X) happens even if the behavior leading up to it wasn’t perfect.  It’s unconditional.

For example, a mom always gives her son a snack when they drive somewhere, but sometimes there’s a struggle actually getting him into his car seat.  Because having a snack in the car is something they do every day, the snack is not the reward for getting into the car seat; it’s the incentive. She reminds her son that, “After everyone gets buckled in our seats, we have a snack.”  That’s the order of events, and something he can look forward to after getting in his seat.  She wouldn’t withhold the snack if, despite her best efforts, there was still struggling and crying about getting into the car seat.  Her son is hungry and he needs it; it’s snack time.

But, if she were to withhold the snack because her son didn’t get in his seat as willingly and peacefully as she wanted, that would be a punishment. If the snack were applied conditionally like this, it would have been a reward if it were given (and a bribe when it was first mentioned).

The difference between reward and incentive lies in the intent of the administrator.

It is also helpful to clarify the distinction between natural consequences, logical consequences, and punishments:

Natural consequence–Anything that would happen completely naturally in a situation. You didn’t eat your dinner so you are hungry at bedtime.

Logical consequence–An imposed consequence that “fits” with the circumstances. You didn’t eat the dinner that was made for you, so you must make yourself some food if you don’t want to go to bed hungry.

Punishment–Not a consequence of the situation at all, but something unrelated imposed specifically for the purpose of making someone unhappy. You didn’t eat the dinner I made for you, so you must go to your room.

For parents endeavoring in positive discipline, we choose incentives over bribes and rewards, and natural and logical consequences over punishments.  They are more effective than their counterparts in helping a child learn, as the parent-child relationship is not devalued, and they help a child develop intrinsic motivation.

Kelly is an API Leader and a Certified Positive Discipline Instructor in Portland, Oregon.  She blogs at Parenting From Scratch.

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Kelly Bartlett (36 Posts)

Kelly Bartlett is the author of "Encouraging Words For Kids" and "Help! My Child is Addicted to Screens (Yikes! So Am I.)" She is an API leader and Certified Positive Discipline Educator in Portland Oregon.

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