Conventional parenting wisdom presumes that parents should reward their kids’ good behavior with more attention and affection, and punish bad behavior by withholding the same—a way to reinforce the good while discouraging the bad.
But parents, take note: A new study suggests this approach may do more harm than good. Fortunately, the study also finds there’s an effective alternative.
In the study, published in the journal Developmental Psychology, Israeli psychologist Guy Roth examined those positive and negative kinds of parenting attention, as well as a different style, called “autonomy support,” where parents nurture and build their kids’ inner motivation. In the study, 169 ninth graders were given surveys asking about their parents’ parenting style, and how often they hid negative emotions like anger and fear from their parents. They and their teachers also completed another survey about their academic performance. Finally, they filled out a survey to see if they felt any resentment towards their parents.
The results showed that kids who received positive attention from their parents in response to good behavior said they saw the point of the positive behaviors that their parents were trying to promote—but did not necessarily believe in the value of those behaviors themselves. The analysis of their academic performance found that these were the types of kids who focus more on tests and grades than on actually learning—more focused on results than on understanding the important principles behind those results. The kids with parents who used this style also tended to suppress their fear and anger, which is not healthy.
On the other hand, the study found that the parenting style of withholding affection fosters a lack of motivation among kids. Those kids don’t value parent-approved activities like schoolwork, suggests Roth, because they don’t expect that these activities will help them achieve anything desirable, nor do they feel competent to actually do those activities. This style was also linked to resentment towards parents because the teens viewed them as highly controlling, and kids who received this kind of parenting also weren’t good at controlling their emotions. Both factors have been associated with misbehavior in kids.
The good news is that the study did uncover a helpful alternative for parents. In the second part of the study, giving positive rewards was compared with parental “autonomy support,” where parents explain the reasons for their requests, give their children lots of opportunities to make decisions, encourage but don’t manipulate, and consistently take their child’s perspective into account. This encourages their children to see the intrinsic value of positive behaviors and of learning.
Roth found that kids who received this type of parenting expressed greater feelings of choice, which predicted more flexible and positive forms of behavior—for instance, getting engaged in academics because they find it interesting, not simply because they feel they have to. In other words, this supportive parenting style was associated with kids actually behaving in positive ways—without the negative emotional consequences linked to other forms of parenting.
“Surely, being supportive of adolescents’ autonomy at times of disagreement is not easy for parents,” writes Roth. “Yet research suggests that, for the sake of children’s psychological and behavioral functioning, it is worthwhile to try.”