Is a Reward Better than a Punishment?


What about rewards? Will my child practice more if they are rewarded more? Or is punishment better? When they don’t practice will taking away electronics or adding extra chores motivate them to work harder next time? You may be asking yourself these same questions after trying both with limited success or an outright rebellion! Depending on your child’s age rewards may work better than punishments as rewards are simpler and punishments are much more complex. After a punishment you cannot simply carry on in the same way as before. You have to ask yourself what precisely went wrong and how it was possible. Then analyze your behavior and how to correct it. What if there is another parenting technique that’s even better than both rewards and punishments? Teamwork.  Let your child know they’re not alone and their ability, motivation and amount of practice will increase!


A young child –lets call her Marie, came into my studio with lots of physical energy and proceeded to hide under the piano then behind the couch and laughed like it was a game when her mother tried to coax her to the bench by promising a visit to the splash pad after our lesson. “If you sit on the bench then we can go to the splash pad.  Don’t you want to play in the water? Come to the bench or no splash pad.” This promise of reward or reward-turned-punishment is conditional. Heather Turgeon, a child physiologist tells us why conditional punishments and rewards don’t motivate.

“Many parents grew up with punishments, and it’s understandable that they rely on them. But punishments tend to escalate conflict and shut down learning. They elicit a fight or flight response, which means that sophisticated thinking in the frontal cortex goes dark and basic defense mechanisms kick in. Punishments make us either rebel, feel shamed or angry, repress our feelings, or figure out how not to get caught…Rewards are more like punishment’s sneaky twin. Families find them alluring (understandably), because rewards can control a child momentarily. But the effect can wear off, or even backfire: “How much do I get?” a client told us her daughter said one day when asked to pick up her room.”

In this case, young Marie wanted to continue her game of hide/seek and was determined not to get caught, nevermind getting to the bench. Her laughter seemed to express a challenge to her mother which I’m betting created anger in her mother as well as frustration and embarrassment too.  After distracting Marie with my fishing pole and mermaid I was able to say, ‘wow it is hard to calm down and sit on the bench when it’s a beautiful day to play; I understand you want to play right now. Can you think of a game we can play at the piano? Let me know if you need my help?’


In this way we can partner with children and be a guide rather than someone there to control. 

Acknowledging our children’s feelings is often the first step to problem solving. As I outline in my Million Dollar Lesson I talked with Marie’s mother after the lesson to get a better picture of why Marie’s behavior was so exited and musically unfocused. Her Mom also shared with me about challenges in their home and personal frustrations. I again restated emotions and reiterated that we were a team with Marie; we came up with ideas such as 2-minute talking sessions where Marie can talk about whatever she wants, engage in more hugs, walk to lessons (to let out some physical energy beforehand), and be less scheduled with more free time on lesson days, as well as how to show Marie that she was on the same team as her mother.  A better response to Marie’s antics may have been ‘‘when you come out from under the piano and finish your lesson we’ll go to the splash pad. I can’t wait! Let me know if you need some help.” 

In this way Marie’s mother is available to help as a resource, encourager and, yes a teammate. She is unconditionally loving Marie as well as giving her the opportunity to make a choice and letting her know she is not alone. This positive mindset where we solve problems with togetherness has also been studied by researcher, Shawn Achor. He calls it a “happiness advantage” because a positive brain outperforms one that is negative, neutral, or stressed; 90% of your happiness is not predicted by your external world but by how your brain processes your external world.”


No matter how irrational or difficult a moment in our world might seem, we can respond in a positive way that says: “I see you. I’m here to understand and help. I’m on your side. We’ll figure this out together.” Ask me about more musical ways we can work together and your child will surprise you by the ways he/she loves to practice!


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