Punishment or reward?

Source: Dr. Law Wai Pak, Assistant Professor of the Department of Psychology at the Education University of Hong Kong and a registered educational psychologist


When it comes to getting their kids to study, many parents feel very frustrated and wish their kids could be self-motivated. When it comes to improving their children’s motivation to learn, many parents first think of using rewards and punishments. But which is more effective, using a stick or a carrot?

In fact, I believe that most modern parents understand that punishment is not a very effective method because it can hurt children’s bodies and undermine their self-esteem. Does this mean that using rewards is more effective? For example, “If you finish your book, you can have a pack of chips.” However, this method also carries hidden risks.

First of all, this reward often has to be constantly increased in order to be effective. Secondly, when there are no rewards, children will not automatically be motivated to study. Besides using punishment and reward, is there a third way?

Here, I would like to introduce three treasures to everyone: “sense of competence,” “sense of autonomy,” and “sense of relatedness.” What is the sense of competence? It is the belief that a child can learn new things and handle challenges. Parents can choose some challenging learning materials or homework that is not too difficult or easy for their children. For example, when they come to the library to choose a book, they should not choose a book with too many difficult words. Children should at least understand 70–80% of the words in the book. In addition, parents should provide more positive and helpful feedback to their children, appreciate their efforts, and brainstorm problem-solving methods with them.

The second thing is the sense of autonomy. Sometimes children may have a high sense of ability, but they will not learn autonomously when they feel oppressed. What can parents do to enhance their children’s sense of autonomy? You can let them make more decisions, encourage them when they study, and only offer help when they need it. Also, don’t give them too many instructions or use rewards and punishments inappropriately, as this can erode their sense of autonomy.

Third, it’s the sense of relationship. Since birth, everyone has had a need to be loved and cared for, and when children feel loved and cared for, they develop trust in their parents. When you ask them to study again, they will take it more seriously. How can parents strengthen their sense of relationship with their children? Listen to them more often, express empathy, and interact with them with a warm attitude. The most important thing is unconditional love, which means loving them regardless of whether their grades are good or bad.

If next time we urge children to study but they refuse, we can start with these three aspects: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Stop and think: How can I satisfy the child’s needs in these three areas? When these three needs are met, children will naturally and automatically learn and grow.

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