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.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Amelia April 21, 2015 at 4:30 pm

Consequences are good in the matters such as described as long as the child is made to do it and the mom doesn’t give in if they throw a fit or just refuse to clean it up. What would you suggest if they don’t clean it up…then is there punishment or would you ‘talk’ to them and hope they see you’re point of view? And what about the safety of the child…what if you have a stubborn child that demands he learns the hard way…how will you emphasize the importance of not running out in front of that car after he’s already done it once? What natural consequence would they suffer then?


Rita Brhel April 22, 2015 at 12:13 pm

Good questions, Amelia. It’s important to start at the level of the parent-child relationship, which is the foundation of effective positive discipline. Positive discipline means setting boundaries to behavior without punishment — in essence, teaching and guiding. To do so, a parent needs to ensure that the child feels safe in the relationship, which needs to be based on trust, authenticity, openness and warmth rather than fear. There are many contributors to tantrums, from hunger and tiredness or illness to emotional disconnect. Addressing these contributors helps immensely in reducing tantrums; the remaining tantrums can be more easily sorted through as to what the root cause is and how to teach the child to work through the situation leading to a tantrum through emotion-coaching and problem-solving. As the parent, you have a huge role in modeling to your child in how to handle strong emotions like anger or frustration. How you handle your child’s tantrums will be how your child will learn to how his/hers.

To give some concrete examples, let’s take the example of a child having a tantrum or refusing to clean up. You’ll need to think about child development and whether expectations are matching that development. Either way, get down on your child’s level, help him/her identify his feelings if he/she is unable/unwilling to and help him/her brainstorm some solutions. It may include you helping him/her, or not. He/she may still be mad or sad, but your positive discipline approach will teach him/her on how to handle it the next clean-up time.

Or the child running out in front of a car. Again, child development is huge. A young child needs a lot of supervision around a busy road, and holding hands is a must. It may help to explain to a preschooler or young elementary child that it’s difficult for people in vehicles to see children and to teach exactly what safety measures the child should take around the roadway. Positive discipline isn’t all natural consequences; it employs lots of different techniques, all designed to teach and guide children in learning, emotion-coaching and problem-solving.


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