Parenting without Rewards and Punishments

Before I had Buddy I was a firm behaviorist. My dad liked the works of B.F.Skinner, and while in college I did therapy with children with autism based on behaviorist principals. In a nutshell, desired behavior was rewarded, undesired behavior was ignored. This worked well for me in college. And it worked well for me in a children’s hospital.

I even used these principals to train my dog, a German Shepherd named Amelia who had spent years in a shelter and was not well socialized when I adopted her. One of the things she used to do was bark if more than two people were in the room or if we were watching tv, making conversation or listening to the tv impossible. We broke the habit by immediately leaving the room if she did it and giving her attention if she was in the room with us and quiet.

Buddy came into the scene, and with him I’ve had to throw behaviorism out of the window and embrace more cognitive theories. I also had a challenge. Buddy may have autism, but he is also incredibly smart. He doesn’t like being manipulating into doing things for rewards, and punishments don’t deter him, if anything he retaliates. This didn’t just have implications for his behavior, but for things like speaking. Speech therapy has been challenging for us, largely because he’s aware he’s being manipulated into speaking and would refuse to speak just because he was being manipulated.

For instance, one time I found I could get him to say “again” if he wanted me to read a book again if I sang “again.” He’d sing it with me. This worked for two nights. Then if I sang “again” expecting him to join in he’d just get off my lap and move on to a different book. This flies in the face of behaviorism.

Rewards do not motivate, punishment does not deter. Considering my behaviorist approach to my clients and dog, this was quite the curveball. He has a high need for control of his environment and getting into power struggles with him is something I constantly have to be on guard for (on the plus side, I do not worry at all about peer pressure when he’s a teenager. If he doesn’t want to do something, he will not do it!) And what works very well one time might not a second time if he feels he was manipulated, so I’m constantly being creative with him.

Even with these challenges, I’m making progress raising him with respect and helping him to learn how to control his emotions and reflect on his behavior and figure out the best decision on his own. Here’s what it boils down to.

  1. Environmental modification. All parents do this to some extent. Baby proofing. Buddy is sensory seeking and craves stimulation. One way he does this is by dumping all of his toys on the floor and rolling on them. And then there was the time he was fascinated with the flour. He would keep going into the pantry and dump it on the floor and play in it. He’s also a climber. We got a lock for the pantry to keep him out. The other problem we had was him trashing his room. I’d bought a lovely organizer for all his toys, and he kept dumping everything on the floor and rolling on it. Eventually I moved his toys to a separate locked room and I only get out certain boxes each day.
  2. Routines. Like a lot of kids with autism, Buddy thrives on routines. Things like wearing a seat belt or helmet aren’t an issue with him because he knows it’s the routine.
  3. Lots of outdoor time. Exposure to natural light. Running, hiking. All of the textures he’s exposed to. When we can’t get outdoors much because of the weather or being too busy I notice he acts out more. And time outdoors helps with the impulsivity.
  4. Teaching him to manage overwhelming emotions. This has been difficult because he does not imitate and does not like being manipulated. When people get mad, we often forget to exhale fully, which causes carbon dioxide to build up in our system and increases the feelings of anger. This is why breathing techniques are taught as part of anger management. One time when Buddy was melting down I saw some bubbles on the window sill and grabbed them, held out the wand and asked if he wanted to blow bubbles. He started blowing bubbles. AND he calmed down. Finally I’d found a way to get him to do breathing technique when he was angry! When he’s angry or hyper I would run for the bubbles. Now I’m at the point where I can prompt him to blow bubbles and he will exhale even if he doesn’t have a wand.
  5. Asking reflective questions. He’s less likely to respond if I give orders. For instance, while taking a walk when we get to the street if I ask, “What do we do when we get the the street?” He’s more likely to stop, and as he’s lately started saying, “wait,” if I say, “stop when we get to the street.” he’s more likely to run into the street. Most of the time he knows what he’s supposed to do, he just doesn’t want to be told what to do. The other day he took Sissy’s special toy monkey, which resulted in lots of tears from Sissy. I asked, “What that a nice or not nice thing you did?” He thought about it. Then I asked, “What would be a nice thing to do?” Amazingly, he handed it back to her.
  6. Always have an activity on standby for him to do. Having too much unstructured time leads to him destroying the house or acting out. If he starts getting antsy I grab an art project or sensory activity. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive. I currently have him drawing pictures in colored salt (just add food coloring) on a cookie sheet. And as he is sensory seeking, he loves this stuff. Another standby is cornstarch and water. It makes this gooey substance that he loves playing with.

I still can’t have conversations with Buddy, but he’s shown that if I asked him to think about his behavior he does. And ultimately that’s what I want. I’ve noticed that some people approach parenting believing they can control their kids and have to force morality on them, while others respect that kids are going to make their own choices and our job is to teach kids how to make good choices. I obviously belong to the latter group. I’m not always going to be there to police Buddy’s behavior, so he is going to need to know how to behave appropriately when I’m not around.


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