Too Many Sticks & Carrots

“We’ve tried everything! Rewards, punishments, but little Stevie still won’t listen. We’re all out of ideas!”

“I’ve been trying to lose weight for years. Nothing seems to work. I’ve tried motivating myself with a visit to the spa for every three weeks of not smoking, but I always end up cheating. It’s no use.”

“I can’t forgive her. If I do, she’ll think that she can get away with that kind of behaviours.” 

Sticks and carrots, carrots and sticks. Most people are at least vaguely familiar with the work of B.F. Skinner who developed the method called behaviour modification. Using positive and negative re-enforcements to change behaviours.

The practice of behaviour modification has become so prevalent in our society, that we often don’t even notice when we’re using this system and can hardly imagine any other way of doing things.

I don’t actually have any hard statistics to share, but it feels to me, like 90% of parenting is based on behaviour modification. Depending on the person, sometimes parenting is all “sticks,” or threats of sticks, aka punishment and for others it is all carrots or rewards. Public schools seem to be moving more in the direction of carrots as motivator. Behaviour modification can be very effective for changing behaviours which is why we use it so often but it can also be overused and misused.

When parenting, if our child is acting out and our only response is to threaten or bribe. we may miss the reasons why a child might be acting out. They might actually be tired, hungry, bored, ill, uncomfortable in some way, reacting to our own stress or in response to a relational conflict between us which is unrelated to the current activity. These are important things to rule out before utilizing behaviours modification strategies.

When trying to change our own behaviours by stopping bad habits or curbing addictive behaviours we often try behaviour modification strategies on ourselves. But if we are using these behaviours because of underlying trauma, or grief, or issues with self esteem, physical illness, or unresolved conflict, (see Addiction, Your Best Frenemy?)

…we may be able to shift our behaviour for a time, but change may not last long if we don’t actually addressing the underlying issues.

When interacting with others, we sometimes try and ‘teach others a lesson’ by rewarding or punishing them. When this person is our partner, it might look like punishment via ‘the silent treatment,’ ‘withholding sex’ or we might be reward so called ‘good behaviour’ by ‘being extra attentive,’ ‘buying a gift,’ etc. The problem with this behaviour is that we sometimes use these strategies in the place of communicating clearly and our actions can become a form of passive aggressive communication. We are, in fact trying to manipulate the behaviour of another person which can be paternalistic.


Most couples I talk to have no interest in playing parent to their partner. Using these strategies can keep us from communicating our needs clearly.

So whats the alternative? Well, first of all, let’s not ‘throw out the baby with the bathwater.’ Behaviour modification can be very helpful. If you have checked out that your child’s behaviours is not due to any physical issues, sleep deprivation, hunger, etc. and you’ve cared for your own stress and considered how well your relationship with your child is going, you might use behaviour modification strategies with your child’s participation. For example a chore chart with a reward of a special activity which a child can ‘work towards.’

For ourselves, when we and need to get out of a habit that is no longer serving a purpose, or has become highly problematic, it is important to understood the role that our currently unwanted behaviours have been playing in our lives (see Addiction, Your Best Frenemy ?). Once we’ve been able to do this, behaviour modification strategies can be helpful, especially if the ‘reward’ we give ourselves fills the gap that the behaviour was originally attempting to fill.

For others including partners, children, friends, or family, learning to set clear boundaries and understanding the consequences for ourselves, when these boundaries are violated, can help us to clearly articulate what we need from others and where our limits are. The result will be a sense of self respect.

For a great read about attachment parenting with a focus on relationship not just rewards and punishment, check out, “Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers” by Gordon Neufeld & Gabor Mate*

*Please note: I have signed on as an affiliate sales person for McNally Robinson which means that if you click on the above link, and decide to purchase the book I’ve recommended, I will receive an affiliate’s fee. I only recommend books I have read and believe to be worth recommending.


For more on parenting see Are the Kids Okay? – Children & Mental Health

See also TEENAGERS!!!

Check out 8 Steps to Communicating with your Partner about Big Life Issues

Also see Where Do I Draw the Line?

15 thoughts on “Too Many Sticks & Carrots

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