Parenting: Rules and Relationships

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Behavior-based parenting techniques have enjoyed a strong following for the last several years. Less well known are the long-term disadvantages of the behavioral approaches, as well as the the relationship-based alternative that predated behavioral parenting’s popularity.

The Age of “Get Tough” Parenting

“How can I make my child to behave?” was the question that behavior-based parenting sought to answer. More specifically, how can a parent get their child to finish their dinner, clean up their room, and do their homework if they aren’t naturally inclined to do so? The answer came straight out of the psychology lab: in order to get the behavior you want, make sure that the behavior you don’t want brings unpleasant consequences (punishment) and the behavior you do want brings positive consequences (rewards). Feed a rat for pushing a button in his cage and he’ll do it more. Shock him for pushing that same button and he’ll quickly stop.

Adapting these principles to the home, “punishment” translated into time-outs and lost privileges while reinforcement morphed into verbal praise and a token economy reward system. If you’ve ever seen an episode of Nanny 911, Supernanny, or World’s Strictest Parents, then you’ve seen these techniques in action. Viewers also observe the intense commitment to consistency and follow-through demanded of the parents in order to make their children comply. Yet in the end, the parents triumph and the child behaves.

The Costs of Compliance

While behavioral approaches to parenting have been demonstrated to stop misbehavior, some experts have written about the long-term disadvantages of behavior-based parenting. According to Parent Effectiveness Training, as described by Gordon Training International and by Dr Thomas Gordon in the seminal book Parent Effectiveness Training , the short-term gains of parenting by punishment and reward are offset by more subtle but long-lasting side-effects.

One of the most obvious downsides of behavioral parenting is the need to continuously deliver punishments and rewards. It’s not enough to give consequences some of the time or most of the time. Very high levels of consistency are required. This is not a problem in the lab, but for real parents with jobs, the task of being totally consistent becomes difficult if not outright impossible.

More insidious is the tendency for external rewards to erode natural or “intrinsic” motivation. Pay children to read books and they’ll read more books. But when the payments stop, these children go on to read fewer books than similar children who were never paid in the first place. In essence, the monetary reward drowned out the enjoyment of reading for reading’s sake.

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Because the enforcement of rules carries such an overhead, children often learn not how to comply but how to avoid getting caught. If you’re like a lot of adults, you may recall how clueless your parents seemed during your teenage years as you navigated around the restrictions they tried in vain to enforce. Is there any reason to believe our own children are less skilled at sneaking than we were?

When rules become the dominant rationale, many of a child’s cognitive and relational skills can suffer. Rule making has the unfortunate consequence of dictating solutions. When a parent creates a rule about how siblings share toys, the children miss out on the process of solving the problem on their own. In time, the real lesson learned is that the parent has the solution to all the child’s problems and will provide it, usually when the child does something to annoy the parent. And as many parents with stay-at-home adult children can attest, these tendencies can last long into adulthood.

Because rules are frequently dictated solutions, the child may not have any idea why the parent is handing down the rule or how the child’s (mis)-behavior affects the parent. A mother’s 10 o’clock curfew might really mean “I worry about your safety and I can’t rest soundly until you’re back.” By speaking of emotions and needs, the underlying reasons for rule making come out and the possibility for creative problem-solving can emerge. The parent’s need to feel their child is safe could be met in other ways, such as spending the night at a trusted friend’s house. Children and teenagers related to in this way often remark “I didn’t understand how much my actions affected my parents.” The curfew that helps Mom sleep well at night is a lot easier to accept than the curfew handed down by fiat.

And last, but surely not least, behavioral parenting strikes at the genuine and rich relationship that is possible between parents and their children. If the major interaction between adults and children becomes one of administering regulations, then the relationship has a tendency to become an adversarial negotiation rather than a loving cooperation. When rules dominate genuine affection, adolescents and even children are at risk of “emotional divorce” from their parents. Simply put, the child stops caring what his parents think or feel. This cutoff signals the loss of an opportunity to influence a child in any other way than through rewards and punishments.

Relationship Over Rules

The central theme of Parent Effectiveness Training is that parents have the strongest and longest-lasting influence over their children (their children as a whole, not just their children’s immediate behavior) when they cultivate a genuine, loving relationship that includes empathy between parents and children and that emphasizes an understanding of the needs of all members of the family. Rules, then, becomes more about solving problems and meeting needs and less about dominance and obedience. The goal of the relation-centric approach to parenting is a young adult who is not only obedient, but is also emotionally intelligent, skilled at solving his own problems and adept at negotiating adult relationships.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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