Growing Up with No Rewards or Punishment

Peter, Cooper, Eric & Jane in 1978

Peter, Cooper, Eric & Jane in 1978

My parents were not into rewards or punishments, an approach to parenting that was pretty unique when I was growing up in the late 50’s through the early 70’s, and still so today. I recall one instance of being swatted on the butt by my dad, not a premeditated thing, but impromptu when I was reaching for something on the hot stove. But other than that, I have no recollection of ever being spanked or grounded, or receiving any of the conventional punishments that most other kids were subjected to.

My behavior as a child was generally pretty good, since I had very little reason to act out or defy the authority of my parents, teachers or other adults in my life. And when I made a conscious decision to move beyond the parameters of acceptable behavior I was smart enough to do it at a time and place where I did not get caught.

My mom and dad provided me with an enriched environment including plenty of interesting venues and the basic generic toys for great imagination play. Those venues included our full unfinished basement, a backyard with two good climbing trees, the park next door, and my best friend Molly’s house across the street (with her cool attic bedroom) where I was always welcome with or without prior arrangement by my parents. The toys included plastic figures (mostly soldiers) and dinosaurs, Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, an Erector Set, chalk (to draw on the concrete slab basement floor), plus various wood and cardboard boxes that I could customize and craft into boats, submarines and other conveyances and structures. They also regularly took me to the library to check out books and to the University of Michigan natural history museum (where I got my plastic dinosaurs).

I attended a very progressive pre-school for two years, Towsley Play School, which I recall featured fun indoor and outdoor locales and lots of great large wood blocks that I used to build pretend spaceships and buildings as settings for solo or group imagination play. This was followed by elementary school (skipping kindergarten because I tested as gifted), starting first grade as a precocious five-year-old. My first and second grade teachers, Mrs. Gittleman and Miss Kelsey, were both really good and encouraged my interests while accommodating my shyness. My mom always said that Mrs. Gittleman did a whole unit on dinosaurs based on my extreme interest and zeal for the subject.

There was little reason to act out or rebel based on all of the above. Most of my occasional bad behavior consisted of some sibling rivalry with my younger brother Peter, staying out in the neighborhood past “when the street lights came on”, or some passive aggressive behavior towards my mom (mimicking my dad) as my parents’ relationship began to deteriorate leading to their divorce when I was ten. I suspect it was the combination of sibling rivalry and stress engendered by overhearing my mom’s loud angry voice in arguments (with growing frequency) with my dad, that led me to taking my own anxiety (or even occasional rage) out on my three-year-younger brother. I would occasionally tease him mercilessly, until he would hit me and then I would respond with a more powerful physical response. Once I pushed him away forcefully in anger and he hit his head against a beam in the basement, gashing it open, and sending him with my dad to the hospital emergency room.

On these occasions of my bad behavior my mom would call it out, let me know she was disappointed with me, even raising her voice and yelling at the most grievous instances. And when she yelled at me it would engender a passive-aggressive response on my part (again mimicking my dad’s behavior) towards her.

During the last years of my childhood at age eight and nine, and as a youth after my parents’ divorce when I was ten, my parents gave me increasing freedom to take my bicycle pretty much anywhere in town I could get to. I would visit my friends, go to the library, or to the toy store when I had accumulated enough allowance or other money to buy something for myself (usually Avalon Hill board games). Though I played little league baseball for many years, I can’t recall my parents ever driving me to practice or even attending my games. I don’t recall discussions about it, but I think they understood that I was shy, this was my thing, and I did not want them there.

Again… having so much liberty, I had few restrictions to rebel against, except for the occasional stuff around the divorce. So during my teen years I have no memory of being punished with thought-out consequences crafted to remediate my behavior. Nor did my mom employ any kind of stickers, stars or other rewards for behavior modification reasons. But she did on occasion get mad at something I had done, raise her voice in anger, tell me that it was inappropriate and why, read me the riot act, insisted that I apologize to someone, or otherwise honestly respond to my behavior.

So what kept me “in line”? Well for one thing, I was a shy enough kid that I did not like it when people were angry with me, anyone really, but certainly not my parents. Also if I continued with my inappropriate behavior, I was aware enough to see how it negatively impacted those around me. I was a happy kid, a loved kid, a free-range kid, and I generally did not have a need to make other people unhappy… well except at times as I’ve indicated with my younger brother Peter.

In raising our own kids, my partner Sally and I generally followed the model of giving them an enriched environment and as much liberty as was safely possible. But as our oldest, Eric, began to rebel around his discomfort with his school and schedule, Sally and I did get caught up for a while in the conventional parenting wisdom of behavior modification, particularly the concept of rewards to try to coerce Eric to do his homework and get up and be ready to be driven to school in the morning. We went through phases of giving stickers, gold stars on charts and privileges allowed based on appropriate behavior.

Paralleling the arguments we would later read in Alfie Cohn’s book Punished by Rewards, Eric always saw this behavior modification system as simply veiled punishment. He would state his case repeatedly and then resist in every way he could. Though I never hit him (on the rear end or anywhere else), I can recall getting so angry at him on a couple occasions that I yelled at him in extreme anger (like my mom had done with me), but this made me very uncomfortable, probably recalling my own feelings when I was on the other end of this sort of response.

But for the most part, and more so as our kids matured as people and Sally and I did so too as parents, we scaled back the household rules to those required for safety, sanity and self-respect, and depended on building and maintaining good relationships with both our kids, so they knew they could tell us pretty much anything. Their honesty could engender our strong opinions at times and action to address perhaps an ongoing bad situation (like our son’s school environment), but they came to understand that we had forsaken the whole reward/punishment thing.

In particular, rather than continue to try to use rewards for behavior modification (as had been advised by an educational specialist we had sent Eric to), we finally assessed and understood the situation enough to realize that his middle school, and in fact any other middle school we could send him to instead, was probably inappropriate for his highly self-directed, auto-didactic learning style. So we took him out of school and let him chart his learning course at home instead, letting him “unschool” (that is choose and pursue his own “curricula”), a radical version of homeschooling that we had read about in books by John Holt (including How Kids Learn and How Kids Fail).

After we pulled him out of eighth grade at age 14, and after a year of his holing up in his room and testing the parameters of his new freedom, he began to chart a path forward for his own life and education. There were seldom instances of inappropriate behavior after that, beyond an occasional staying out past his curfew, particularly once he had gotten his license and borrowed the car to visit friends in the evening. He had developed enough of a relationship with his parents, and appreciated the liberty we had given him, to apologize for his misdeeds and on his own recognizance, do better after that.

What’s particularly wonderful and gratifying, now that both our kids are young adults (now ages 20 and 24) running their own lives, is that they both demonstrate great self-direction and self-control, and both thank their parents at every opportunity for raising them with so much love, liberty and respect for their own budding agency, and after some missteps, without rewards and punishments.

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