Behavior Does Not Make Them Bad or Good: Parenting without Punishment or Reward. ~ Jacey Tramutt

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Vincent Tijms

My house is an elf free zone.

“You don’t want an elf!? But why?” I’m asked in disbelief.

I don’t want an elf because my life’s passion and work is to help people unlearn all that the elf epitomizes, which is the belief that one’s self worth and worthiness is decided by and dependent upon others’ approval.

In Case You Haven’t Heard of the Elf


The elf on the shelf is an extremely popular “toy,” a.k.a., “way to control children’s behavior” that comes out at Christmas time. The elf watches the children of the house during the day, and at night flies to the North Pole to tell Santa who has been naughty and who has been nice.

The Ultimate Shame

In the case of the elf, the person passing judgment is none other than the almighty Santa Claus. And what could be a bigger indicator of the fact that you are a total loser as a kid than to hear, “You’ve been naughty – you better shape up or Santa will not bring you any presents on Christmas!” That is the ultimate shame and proof that you are “bad.” Granted few parents actually follow through on this threat, but that’s another article.

We Want to Control So We Don’t Feel Powerless

In his book, Parenting the Non-Violent Communication Way, Marshall Rosenberg talks about how our culture has trained us to believe that it is our job as parents, teachers and adults to make children behave, and our method for this is punishment and reward.

Rosenberg writes about his children, “They taught me that first of all, I couldn’t make them do anything. I couldn’t make them put a toy back in the toy box. I couldn’t make them make their bed. I couldn’t make them eat. Now that was quite a humbling lesson for me as a parent, to learn about my powerlessness.”

What’s the Problem With Punishment and Reward? It Works, Doesn’t it?

Ken Wilcox

It can “work” in the sense that a child may act in accordance with the person in power’s wishes. However, what is the cost of this compliance? Both punishment and reward are based on coercion. Think of the last time you were coerced to do something you didn’t want to do. How did that feel? Being punished often triggers the feeling of shame — the inability to distinguish person-hood from behavior.

“I did this so I must be bad/broken/damaged goods/crazy/etc.”

Being rewarded creates a compulsion to always do what others want of us, even when we don’t want to, so we can get the reward and feel good about ourselves.

Eventually we are not going to get that reward we are looking for, be it a raise, praise, appreciation, etc. Coming up short after trying so hard leads to feeling frustrated, angry and resentful along with bad about ourselves. “I must not have tried hard enough.”

Raising a Child Without Punishment or Reward:

I asked my husband last night, “What do you think about raising our son without punishment or reward?” By now he’s used to these kinds of questions from me. “Well, it’s an interesting idea,” he answered. “What takes the place of punishment and reward?” “We’re going to have to learn a new language,” I said.

Instead of Punishment and Reward:

A language that steers clear of judgment and focuses instead on compassion, listening, understanding and clear communication of feelings and needs, while tolerating the feeling of powerless. In addition, we are going to have to teach our son how to identify and communicate his own needs, which create feelings, which create behaviors. As a family I’d like for us to find the middle ground whenever possible. On the middle ground, everyone can get their needs met, or at the very least, have their needs heard and valued.

I want everyone in our family to be willing to change behaviors because we actually want to, instead of being motivated by the fear of punishment or promise of reward. This language does have a name: non-violent communication, or compassionate communication.

 Santa and the Elf Practice Non-violent Communication:

Elf: Santa, I saw little Jimmy hit is sister.

Santa: How did that impact you Elf?

Elf: I felt scared when I saw that. I need to know I’m safe in Jimmy’s house and that he won’t hit me.

Santa: Could you tell him that?

Elf: Yes. I think I’ll ask him if he’d be willing to not to hit me or his sister so that everyone in the house will feel safe.”


Elf: Little Johnny is a very naughty boy. He hit his sister!

Santa: How did that impact you Elf?

Elf: I thought, Little Johnny- you are going on Santa’s naughty list!

Santa: Yes, what a bad boy. Hmmm…Hit his sister. Where is my list?

Elf: Make sure you punish him. No bike this year! Maybe a lump of coal.

Santa: Yes, one lump of coal it is.

It’s Just An Elf — Aren’t You Taking It A Bit Far?

The elf is just one example of how our culture teaches us to place our self worth in the hands of others. The amount of suffering this creates is immense.

This holiday season, give your children the best gift you could give them. Explain that their behavior does not make them a good or bad person. Let them know that walking the line between one’s own needs and the needs of others is a tricky one that most adults struggle with. Ask them how they feel. Teach them that knowing and communicating their own experience as well as listening to the experience of others is the way to feel good about themselves. Get rid of the elf.



Jacey Tramutt, MA LPC used to practice self-aggression every minute of every day. Now, instead she practices letting go of self-aggression whenever she is conscious of it and helps others do the same through Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy in Golden, CO. For more information visit her at



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anonymous Aug 18, 2012 6:39am

[…] works. It’s a pattern of reasoning that’s a product of social breeding. It’s based on a system of reward and punishment. As children, our parents offered us ice cream if we sat quietly in the corner. In kindergarten, we […]

anonymous May 6, 2012 9:17am

[…] […]

anonymous Mar 16, 2012 10:15am

[…] Behavior Does Not Make Them Bad or Good: Parenting without Punishment or Reward. ~ Jacey Tramutt ( […]

anonymous Feb 17, 2012 2:49pm

[…] Behavior Does Not Make Them Bad or Good: Parenting without Punishment or Reward. ~ Jacey Tramutt ( […]

anonymous Dec 20, 2011 4:39pm

This is a very thought provoking article. Regardless of where a parent ultimately comes down on the issue of reward and punishment, it's certainly something that deserves a good amount of discussion and consideration.

Posted to Elephant Family on Facebook

anonymous Dec 20, 2011 3:53pm

I too am freaked out by parents so badly needing to be their kid’s friends that they cannot be good parents. I had a mother like that and while I loved her *most* dearly, I sure wish she’d been more of a parent and less of my friend.

I don’t think cleaning up the spilled cup is a punishment — it’s merely the right thing to do when you spilled your cup, and it’s a consequence of having put that cup in the wrong place.

    anonymous Nov 6, 2013 6:35am

    This article isn't about not having the child clean up a spill. It's about not intimidating,scaring or forcing your child to clean up the spill. You have the child clean up because,yes, they need to learn to do things like that and to be responsible,but there's a whole other way to go about it. You can,for example, help your child (especially if they're still young)clean up the spill, so they see how to do it and they get to help you. If you treat your child with respect all of the time,they will be more likely to listen to your request to clean up their spill, because they respect you. As they get older, because you're taught them well and in a loving manner,they will promptly clean up their spills because it is the right thing to do and they want to please you. The difference is, when the child is forces, intimidated and scared into cleaning up the spill,they don't do it because they want to, or know it's the right thing to do, they do it out of fear. This causes all sorts of problems with their confidence and,especially, their sense of self-control and reasoning.
    If you do something only because,if you don't, your spouse, boss,or whoever,is going to come screaming at you, throwing things at you or even hitting you, you aren't feeling very good at doing it, you're doing it only for survival. When that said person is not around, maybe you won't be doing that thing that you feel you have to do to save yourself. Just like,maybe,once that child is out of the house, they won't be cleaning up their spills because they finally don't have to. You never actually succeed at teaching anyone anything with fear and intimidation, you teach them through love, understanding and respect.
    To put it a bit better,since not cleaning up spills in their own home doesn't sound all that bad- maybe that child will be trying to get away with things such as shoplifting, hurting other people, or other illegal things, just to see if they can get away with it,so they feel that they finally have a sense of control over their lives and to feel a bit of power over the adult who has been intimidating them (that feeling of-haha! He/she doesn't even know I did this! I WIN!!!). So, in turn, this child has learning nothing but how to obey and how to try to get away with things. You have given this child absolutely nothing to go by as an adult,since, once a person is an adult, things have much stronger repercussions out in the real world,and they will often have to learn this the hard way. Or, if they aren't the types to lash out and try to get away with things, the intimidating parent only breaks down the will of the child and the child lacks self confidence (as does the more aggressive child). This child might obey and seem like a "good" child,but really,they are hiding inside of themselves, living in fear (even with out violence in the home). This child is also lacking any real survival skills for the real world, only for in a situation they grew up in.

    Why would you, or anyone, think that teaching a child this way would be a positive way to go about preparing a child for the outside world? All this type of parenting maybe accomplishes is a child that can survive inside of the home, but that only depends on which way the child goes. By the way, intimidation, and fear is the same as the punishment and reward system. You are not training a dog, you're trying to raise a child who will be able to function in the outside world.

anonymous Dec 20, 2011 7:40pm

Thanks for taking the time to comment on my article. I hear you, and I think that we are all so caught up in punishment and reward that it's hard to see another way. A couple of specific things:

-Sorry, I don't know what an AP sentiment means.
-I think that natural consequences are different than punishment, and I agree, that natural consequences are an important part of learning for children and adults alike.
-Rosenberg also talks about the protective use of force. For example, if the child runs in the street, taking the child inside might be the only thing to do. This is not punishment, however, because the intention is different. The intention is to protect, not to punish.