December 19, 2011

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

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 www.cultivateconfidence.com



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