Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Motivating vs. Controlling Children

I absolutely adore my sweet, sensitive little boy.  He melts my heart with the hugs and kisses he shares even with his toys, the way he beams "Mommy! Mommy! Here go!" as he brings me bowls of pretend food,  the way he belly laughs when we play chase, the way he loudly tells himself, "No, no!" when breaking a house rule, and the way his lower lip sticks out when he is about to burst into heart-felt sobs.

Looking into his adorable little face, I just can't imagine ever hitting him, no matter what his mood or what he has just done.  I know that being hit by his parents would break his sensitive little heart, not to mention my own.  Although I can't say with certainty that spanking is always wrong for everyone, I absolutely know that it is wrong for my son, wrong for me, wrong for my family.

And luckily for me, it seems that research backs up the results of parenting without the dynamic of strong punishment.  In his bestselling book "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion",  Dr. Robert Cialdini describes a very relevant study on using different types of persuasion on children.

In the study, the children--all boys ranging from age 7 to 9--were divided into two groups.  For one group, each boy was shown an array of five toys, then threatened with punishment if he played with the most attractive toy, a robot.  When the researcher left the room for a few minutes, almost all the boys avoided the forbidden toy.

However, the other group of boys, who also each saw the same five toys, received different treatment.  They were simply instructed not to play with the robot "because it is wrong," with no threat of punishment.  When the researcher left the room, almost all of those boys also avoided the forbidden toy.  In other words, these two approaches produced the same immediate results.

The most interesting part of the study came six weeks later, when the same boys met with the researcher again.  This time, the researcher didn't give any special instructions about the robot when leaving each boy alone in the room with the same five toys.  Of the group of boys who had previously been threatened with punishment, 77% chose to play with the robot during the second visit.  Of the group of boys who had simply been instructed rather than threatened, only 33% chose to play with the robot during the second visit.

How can we account for this difference?  The book explains,
"Social scientists have determined that we accept inner responsibility for a behavior when we think we have chosen to perform it in the absence of strong outside pressures.  A large reward is one such external pressure.  It may get us to perform a certain action, but it won't get us to accept inner responsibility for the act.  Consequently, we won't feel committed to it.  The same is true of a strong threat; it may motivate immediate compliance, but it is unlikely to produce long-term commitment.
 All of this has important implications for rearing children.  It suggests that we should never heavily bribe or threaten our children to do the things we want them to truly believe in.  Such pressures will probably produce temporary compliance with our wishes.  However, if we want more than just that, if we want the children to believe in the correctness of what they have done, if we want them to continue to perform the desired behavior when we are not present to apply those outside pressures, then we must somehow arrange for them to accept inner responsibility for the actions we want them to take" ("Influence," Kindle location 1526-1537).
This certainly resonates with my own experience.  I know that I felt very little agency over my life and my choices while growing up, and as I discovered in the freedom of adulthood, very very few of the lessons of my youth "stuck."  So now as a parent, I will try as much as possible to promote mutually respectful dialogue, disagreement, and compromise, so that my son doesn't have to realize that he has no idea who he is when he becomes an adult.


  1. Sorry being so late to comment, but insomnia has me catching up on blogs I often don't have time to read, alas including yours.

    I only know of two boys (now teenagers) who weren't spanked by their parents. Admittedly I don't know that many people in that age group, and also I admit to never having been spanked, but that was because my mother could shame me into a bowl of quivering, apologetic jelly.

    The boys of which I speak, who are Norwegian and live in Norway where spanking is considered antisocial, are two of the most gentlemanly 16- and 14-year olds I have ever met. I doubt, knowing their parents, that they were ever shamed into submission, either. I'm honored to have them as second cousins.

    1. It's always encouraging to hear stories like that, especially after years of hearing that such a thing was impossible. Thanks for sharing!