How can I make my children behave?

20th September, 2008

Disciplining children seems simple enough. Reward them when they do well and punish them when they misbehave. They should respond to incentives, right? Am I missing something?
Tom Cookson, Berkshire

Dear Tom,

You are right up to a point. Children do respond to incentives, but there are limits to this strategy, the most obvious being that children are impatient. If you cannot help them to become pleasant people without rewards and punishments, you will find that both carrot and stick must be brandished with alarming frequency.

A second problem is credibility. Will you really carry out your threat to subject four-year-old Billy to waterboarding? It seems unlikely, and since Billy will not always respond to your threats, he will soon discover if they are hollow.

The challenge, then, is to make sure that you have punishments available to you that you are willing to carry out. You may be able to rise to that challenge by building up what Joshua Gans calls “punishment capital” – not to be confused with capital punishment. Professor Gans, author of a new book called Parentonomics, points out that if you are the source of a steady stream of money or sweets, that gives you a negotiating position. Threatening to remove the carrot (or rather, the flow of chocolate coins) is more credible than threatening to wield the stick. What one parent sees as junk food, Professor Gans sees as an “incentive opportunity”.

I have written before about the research of economist Bruce Weinberg, who finds that children in richer families are much less likely to be spanked, yet more likely to have allowances withdrawn. That makes sense: poor families lack all kinds of capital, and that includes punishment capital too.

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