No Punishments; No Rewards!

Teach without punishments or rewards with logical consequences

Dear Dr. Fournier:

How do you instill in a child the work ethic – the desire to perform a task or assignment to the best of his ability – even under what he views as adverse circumstances? How does a child learn to work for an internal reward, such as personal self-satisfaction, rather than an external reward such as money or the promise of something that the child wants?

Ricky W.

Cleveland, OH

Dear Ricky:

All of us suffer from procrastination at one time or another – and the operative word here is “suffer.”


In school and at home, too many children see their choices as being between risk and avoidance. We ask our children to take a risk with every attempt: Risk failure, risk ridicule, risk punishment, and risk humiliation. On the other hand, if the child can somehow manage to simply avoid the task in the first place, then they will have simultaneously avoided all of the fears they knowingly or unwittingly associate with risk taking. When viewed in this light, which is safer: risk or avoidance?

The common response parents have when they see that avoidance is becoming a pattern with their child is to resort to a system of punishments and rewards concerning the task at hand — the child will be rewarded if the work is completed, or punished if it is not. The problem with this approach is that it teaches the wrong ideas about the world that is awaiting them when they enter the workforce. If you take a simple situation in the office world, we see logical consequences as a baseline understanding, not punishments or rewards. If an employee does not complete his work, the natural consequence is that he or she will have to stay and finish it. You will not hear the employer say: Bring in your stereo. You’ve lost it for a week,” or “If you complete the spreadsheet, I’ll give you one dollar for every line, and five dollars for a completed page.”

We need to turn around the give or take – punishments or rewards – and recognize that the way to avoid the consequences of not doing work is to get it done, not to avoid it. The consequence of not doing work always needs to be to do it. Above all, we must demonstrate that each child has a responsibility to himself, his family and his school, and that responsibility is not the choice of “to do or not to do.”


“It takes a village to raise a child.”

The African proverb has become a popular saying, but all too often we view it only from an adult perspective. Just as every adult has a role in the village, so does every child. Carrying out that role is not a choice – it is a responsibility that allows each of us, including children, to be players with a part in the village.

While the concept starts at home, it doesn’t end there. The goal is to help your child see school as their village.

Make a list with your child of “Breathing Rules” for school. I call this list “Breathing Rules” because what children give to the village is as essential to their wellbeing as breathing. Help your child view school as a village that helps him or her have a future, but the village cannot achieve its purpose unless your child gives what is needed. For example:

I must give my teacher the homework she assigns. The homework does not have to be done to perfection but it must be neat, complete and handed in on time. Not to do so breaks down the functioning of the school village and is a sign of disrespect for the teacher.

I must give my full attention and listen when the teacher is teaching. A student must be prepared to answer questions.

I must give my teacher work that I am proud to look at. The work doesn’t have to be perfect – or even correct, but each paper is a way of communicating that you care, and caring is not a choice.

Notice that each responsibility requires the child to “give” something of him or herself; it does not give the choice to “take” a punishment or reward.

Once you have developed the list, talk to your son and make it clear that this is expected behavior from that day forth, without punishments, fights or rewards. Any work that is avoided, missed or half-finished is simply to be completed. If he chooses not to do his work during the week in school, then the natural consequence is to get it done on the weekend. It doesn’t matter if the assignment is late, or will not be accepted by the teacher, it is still learning that he is responsible for, and therefore it must be learned. As your child takes on the tasks, give him the chance to feel self-satisfaction by letting him know how his contribution helps the family, and simultaneously he will reap the internal reward through his own accomplishments.

While parents want to believe that we win when we punish, our children know better. They retaliate with increased avoidance of their work. We can help our children develop a personal work ethic, but only if we stop allowing the give-or-take mentality that allows children to choose between responsibility and avoidance.


Yvonne Fournier
Dr. Yvonne Fournier has been a pharmacist, public health administrator, demographer and entrepreneur. She has followed her own roadmap in becoming arguably one of the most prolific of educators and child advocates in America today.