Carrot or Stick: Disciplining Your Digital Kids

The effectiveness of using a system of rewards and punishments with kids is a long-standing question, but it's taking on additional dimensions as a new child-raising theory comes to the fore and families make more use of devices like smartphones and iPads.


Many parents today discipline their children by giving or taking away time with mobile devices, according to recent research. But a number of experts argue that neither the carrot nor the stick really works. Instead, they recommend that parents help kids develop internal or "intrinsic" motivation, so that the kids will do the things they need to do—such as homework and chores—to get where they ultimately want to go.

In families that own smartphones and/or tablets, 46 percent of parents of zero- to eight-year-olds give them time with mobile devices as a reward, while 60 percent take away time with devices as a punishment, according to a study by the Center on Media and Human Development at Northwestern University.

Yet in the survey group as a whole, which included families that didn't own smartphones and/or tablets, scores were even higher for using time with an activity or toy as a reward and/or punishment. In fact, activity/toy was followed by books, TV show/DVD, handheld video game player, and mobile devices, in that order. Time with computers ranked just below time with mobile devices.

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The survey didn't ask parents what they think about the effectiveness of rewards versus punishments. But of all items on the list, books are the only one that parents used more as a reward (by giving time with it) than as a punishment (by taking away time with it).

Some Experts Question Carrot-or-Stick

Author Daniel Pink has vehemently attacked the practice of giving rewards to kids. In fact, "paying" kids with iPods, McDonald's coupons, or cash can be quite harmful in the end, because it sends out the message that the only reason to study is to get an "extrinsic" or external reward from parents, according to Pink, author of the book Drive.

"You are not deciding to do this on your own. There is no higher value to it. It is simply for the reward," said Pink, in an interview published in Public School Insights. Such a lesson is not suited to the business world that kids will eventually step into, which is moving to a level where workers are expected to perform "complex, conceptual, creative tasks" and where motivation is "built around the elements of autonomy, mastery, and purpose," he said.

In the book Punished by Reward, Alfie Kohn presents several problems that he sees with the carrot-or-stick approach. First, the promise of a reward is conversely a promise of a punishment if the expected behavior isn't performed, according to Kohn. Second, using rewards and punishments is bad for the relationship between parent and child. Third, the carrot-or-stick approach ignores the reasons why a child might not be motivated. Fourth, as Pink also argues, rewards and punishments undermine intrinsic motivation.

In summarizing Kohn’s points in an article published in Family Studies, Dr. Justin Coulson says that the carrot-or-stick method requires considerable daily supervision (and nagging) by parents to ensure that kids complete assigned tasks such as homework, chores, and cleaning their rooms. Coulson recommends that parents instill intrinsic motivation in teenagers by talking with them about "common areas of concern." If a teen isn't cleaning his room, parents can explain that they pay for the kid to live there, and while they don't expect perfection they do expect "a certain minimum standard."

When kids aren't studying enough, parents might ask, "What do you want to be/do/have?" A kid who wants to be a pilot should see that, although biology (for example) may be of no direct interest, it’s important to study for the biology exam anyway because the score will affect the student’s GPA and post–high school opportunities.

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Not Everyone Agrees

Other experts see merit in systems of rewards and/or punishments. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis have found that punishments—and in a separate study, negative feedback—seem more likely than rewards to influence students' behavior. The negative feedback doesn't need to be harsh, however, because people respond in the same way to different amounts of negative feedback, according to the researchers.

Experts interviewed for a 2004 newspaper article published in the UK disagreed over how parents should handle bad behavior, but they agreed that parents should respond to good behavior with "copious praise and sometimes a reward."

Using phones and tablets to develop "intrinsic motivation"

If we assume that fostering "intrinsic motivation" might be a good alternative to rewards and punishment, how can parents use tools like smartphones, tablets, and PCs to help kids—particularly, young children—become more self-motivated?

In the Northwestern University study, 40 percent of parents of children ages two to five said they "co-engage" with the computer "all or most of the time" when the child is using it. Another 29 percent said they do so when the child is using a smartphone for games, videos or the internet, and 21 percent do so when the child is using an iPad, iPod Touch, or similar device.

Those numbers drop substantially for parents of children ages six to eight. Still, among all parents of zero- to eight-year-olds, 70 percent co-engage either "all or most of the time" or "some of the time" when the child is using the computer.

It wouldn't be surprising if this type of "co-engagement" happens with older kids, and if they involve siblings, too.

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Coulson's article is about teens, but parents could have the same types of conversations with young kids that Coulson suggests, on an age-appropriate level. Four-year-olds probably don't have a clue yet what they want to "do/have/be." They might remember dressing up as a pirate last year for Halloween, but that’s not much to go on.

Still, you might ask any kid old enough to talk a question such as, "What do you love most about this smartphone?" An eight-year-old girl might respond that she enjoys listening to music on the phone, and reveal that she wants to be like Taylor Swift when she grows up. You might then help her look up pictures of Taylor Swift and videos of the singer’s performances on the computer. You might download the GarageBand app to the iPad, along with a karaoke app or two. You might look into getting some real-world music lessons for her at some point, if she hasn't moved on by then to some other area of interest. You get the drift.

A lot of parents probably ask questions along these lines already—even if they haven’t thought about it in terms of "instilling intrinsic motivation."

Photo credits:, Sprint.