reward and punishment

There are times in my relationship with my children when I feel like I’m channeling the Commandant from The Great Escape, and they are Steve McQueen. The Bee in particular has an artful, almost Judd Nelson-as-John-Bender-like way of responding to punishment and threats (a reference perhaps more accessible to my Gen X cohort).

That sort-of “give me another” kind of reaction.

In a way, I almost admire it, even while it’s simultaneously driving me absolutely crazy. I mean, Steve McQueen is the guy we all wanted to be, not Hannes Messemer playing a Nazi, right? As a child of the ’80s, I certainly never wanted to be Principal Vernon. I want my kids to be tough, and to stand up for themselves when they have to. But why does it have to be so damn hard to live with them while they’re learning to pick their battles?

I know there are people that worry that they are too permissive with their kids. I’m the opposite. I’m much more worried that I’m too harsh on them, that my expectations for their behavior isn’t age appropriate. That I’m expecting them to grow up too fast, to act like an adult too fast. And there are times, in my frustration, that I get into a kind of feedback loop with the Bee, where our only interactions with each other are negative.

For the first few years of our parenting, landisdad and I were unaware of the beauty of the sticker chart. And after we did find out about them, we were sort of opposed–I mean, it seems so mercenary, to reward your kids for good behavior. Kind of like bribery. Then, last year around Christmas time, I finally broke down and made a sticker chart for the Bee. It was a revelation.

Later in the year, when she was having difficulty with her teacher, Mrs. X suggested a school sticker chart. It took a while, but eventually, her behavior did improve.

All that rewarding good behavior got me thinking. Do we all have an internal sticker chart that lets us reward ourselves for being good? Is part of parenting teaching kids that good behavior isn’t something that anyone is capable of all the time–but that it is possible to be a good person most of the time. To beat the averages, as it were.

We’re moving into a time in the Potato’s emotional development where he’s starting to approach every disagreement as the end of his world. He’s in that toddler place where he wants to do everything by himself, and is constantly frustrated by his own limitations. He wants ‘helpee,’ but only on his terms, in his way, and if his dad or I try to help him in some unacceptable way, he more often than not will collapse on the floor in a heap.

When the Bee was in this phase, I did some of my worst parenting ever. I’m a (mostly) rational person, and the constant irrationality of the toddler wears me down pretty quickly. In addition to that, when the Bee was a toddler, landisdad lost his job, and three months later, I got laid off to part-time, so we were both pretty stressed out. The struggle of being first-time parents of a willful little girl was more than we were up to.

This time around, I think that landisdad and I are better equipped to ease the Potato through his toddler-hood. Our financial state has certainly improved, and while there are new stresses, they are nothing to compare to the joys of living on unemployment (especially when it’s about to run out). And we have this beautiful girl, who has taught us so much about being parents. That we need to reward ourselves when we’re doing good, and not just punish ourselves for doing bad things.


August 23, 2005. growing up, thoughtful parenting.


  1. chip replied:

    yeah, when my kids were that age (and even older) I very easily fell into a pattern of power struggles with them, which escalated and made everyone miserable. So I tried to get away from power struggle dynamics, which did seem to work. It’s hard though, it involves being willing to back down, to shift the focus, yet at the same time being firm and drawing clear limits. I can’t even remember at this point how I did it. And while it worked pretty well it didn’t totally eliminate those dynamics, which still kick in with my teenager and preteen.

    We also found it hardest when we were financially or work stressed; I think when things are going well in the rest of our lives we have more mental and other energy to deal with these situations more constructively.

  2. Ashley replied:

    I’ve had to learn the hard way that you can’t argue with a toddler. Their logic just isn’t the same and you both end up losing. argh.

  3. Jessica replied:

    Oh, Landismom, what a wonderfully articulate post (and helpful reminder – thanks).

  4. OldGuy replied:

    Very well put. Parenting is a new experience and a new challenge every day and our role is to raise good kids.

    Not always easy is it !

  5. Mrs. Mogul replied:

    Thanks for the tips! I have no idea about babies and I am having one!

  6. comfort addict replied:

    That’s a nice post. Being childless, I have never heard of a sticker chart before. I can imagine what it’s used for but would appreciate more information (I can’t make it work for dogs, can I?)?

  7. Dawn replied:

    good post!

  8. panthergirl replied:

    The sticker chart is a life-saver. My daughter (the one who turned 20 today) was nearly impossible to potty train. She really just didn’t care, and would have been happy to stay in diapers until she was 10. At 3, the pre-school said she couldn’t attend without being potty trained, so we were forced to deal with the issue.

    Sticker chart to the rescue! Problem solved in a week!

  9. not-for-profit-dad replied:

    I think your level of self-conscious decision-making rather than gut-level reaction will stand you in good stead.

    And as a member of your Gen-X cadre, I loved the Great Escape reference.

  10. elise replied:

    I found the toddler stage to be incredibly difficult. My first two were only 17 months apart and I was really in the midst of a storm a lot of times. My son would have screaming temper tantrums – I timed one and it lasted 45 minutes with him screaming at the top of his lungs WITH NO BREAKS. It was actually quite amazing. And of course all the experts seemed to be saying I was doing something wrong. I like to tell people about it now because he is so sweet!! And calm and happy. Maybe he released all his pent up rage and now is totally at peace with the world. It would usually reduce me to tears, yelling and screaming – not a wonderful parenting moment! But somehow we came out at the end of that long tunnel okay and dare I say even a bit better than just okay!?!

  11. Jessica D. replied:

    Great post. We tend to be fairly strict and we have high expectations for our kids (at least compared to some of our friends and relatives). We view ourselves as benevolent dictators. I have more trouble with discipline than my husband – maybe because I grew up in a way-too permissible home. I’ve learned that discipline really does mean “teaching” and although it has a punishment component, it doesn’t have to be all bad.

  12. landismom replied:

    Thanks, Jessica & Elise.

    We’ve had some battles that raged for hours (at least it seemed like that long at the time). Looking back, I think, ‘now why on earth did I let that last that long?’ But I did, and I have to own that and move on.

  13. it comes and goes « Bumblebee Sweet Potato replied:

    […] known that the Bee has issues with anger management, and dealing with frustration. I once wrote a post about feeling like the prison warden from The Great Escape, and to be utterly frank, that was not […]

  14. One year of BBSP « Bumblebee Sweet Potato replied:

    […] 7. reward & punishment […]

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