Reframing the Rewards/Punishment System Used at My Child's School

Dear Dr. Laura,

I have been trying to shift my parenting from the rewards/punishment system to a more intuitive, connected way. We are doing really well and I feel more connected to my children.

My issue is that my daughter goes to a school where they have the traffic light system for behaviours. She is 'well behaved' and almost always on the green light or even the gold star for exceptional behaviour.

At home, I no longer reward/punish but I did for so long that the words are still ingrained in her psyche. Today she asked if I could make her a traffic light system for her 'good choices'. This came about as she did her homework (without being prompted to) this morning in the middle of the half term holiday. I tried to explain that the best 'reward' was the satisfaction of getting it done and making the choice herself....but she still wants tangible recognition that she is making 'good choices'.

I explained that I wouldn't be judging her behaviour so wouldn't use the chart. However she was so insistent that she is now making the chart and I said she was welcome to use it herself.

I just feel disappointed that despite our shift in perspective at home, despite all the encouragement we give (without the empty 'good girl/well done' type praise), she still feels the need for some sort of judgement/tangible acknowledgement of her choices. We are a loving family and she now ( for the past two years) gets a lot of validation and acceptance for who she is; not what she does.

I feel a bit at a loss for what to do. I want her to feel that making the right choice is reward enough.

Your daughter is learning to manage herself, and this is the framework she is used to. But you can make it a positive thing, as long as you continue to refrain from participating in the rewards and punishment yourself, but instead let her be in charge of it.

I think the way to talk with your daughter about this would be something like this:

"We all have a traffic light inside us....It helps us be the people we want to be, and to make the best choices in our lives....So when you make the decision to get your homework out of the way early, how does that feel inside you? Like a green light? Great!! How wonderful that you have been able to develop a habit like this, and even more wonderful that you have a clear traffic light inside you....

You know, we all make choices, every day, that are between green and red. We get that yellow warning light sometimes, and it is so important that we pay attention to it. What else makes you feel green inside? What makes you feel the yellow light inside? What about the red light?...

You know, little children need to do exactly as they're told because they don't really understand how the world works, like the fact that the stove is hot or the street is dangerous. I know at school, they still decide for you what behaviors should get a green or yellow or red light. But as you get older, you can make more and more decisions for yourself, so you don't need to just do what someone else tells you. You will have learned for yourself what works for you.

I love that you are deciding for yourself that it feels better to get your homework out of the way. Of course, sometimes people -- like other kids -- will encourage you to do things that will make that yellow light go on inside. I love that you have such a well-developed internal sense of how to make choices that are good for you, no matter what someone outside you says."

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I have seen amazing improvement in my *very* angry 17 year-old son after acknowledging that there was a reason he was so angry and acting out. We have had several heartfelt conversations and I have seen a real change in how he treats his younger brother, and how he treats me.


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