Parenting is the greatest joy and, from time to time, the greatest frustration. Deciding how to address a child’s behavior, for example, can be difficult. A parent may wonder whether to focus on the positive, address the negative or try a combination of both.
“Positive reinforcement” was a popular buzzword in the 90’s that weaved itself into the common practices of parenting and education. As a technical term, positive reinforcement reaches back a few decades to the theory of operant conditioning, a type of learning in which an individual’s behavior is modified by consequences. Literally, it refers to the addition (hence “positive”) of something desired to increase the likelihood of repeating a behavior (i.e., “reinforcement”).
More recently the term has grown to encompass the idea of infusing positive – this time meaning good, not additive – feelings, praise and rewards into our interactions with children. As a culture we have come to adopt positive reinforcement as a battle cry against all things punishment, and we accept as a given that our positivity is the greatest behavior modification tool in the box. Admittedly, this is a simplistic rendering of social learning, but as a general rule it is true that you will elicit more lasting change in a child’s behavior through the use of reinforcement than through punishment.
One type of reinforcement is delivered by establishing a system in which children can anticipate rewards for certain behaviors. For example, you might offer to give your daughter one dollar on iTunes for each time she completes her piano practice without being asked. Alternatively – or in addition – you could give spontaneous reinforcement following a desired behavior. Perhaps you throw in an extra five iTunes dollars one day to let her know how much you appreciate her effort and consistency. And of course, let’s not forget verbal praise, an effective agent when it is genuine. The key here is that you, the person who reinforces, are in control. You set the parameters and you deliver the reward in response to good behaviors.
There are situations in which reinforcement is more of a bribe: rare and high stakes events in which the outcome matters more than learning. Good behavior on a long airplane ride, for example, or sitting quietly through a sibling’s performance instead of a preferred activity may be worth the price. So long as these occasions remain infrequent, bribery resembles many adult situations in which we try to obtain a return for doing something difficult.
Let’s consider another type of situation, one that is not so easy. It’s raining outside and your kids are cooped up in the house, bickering. You have things to do, you’re tired and you can’t think with the noise. It’s been a stressful week already, so your defenses are down. You have told them time and again to calm down, ignore each other and do separate activities, but to no avail. Finally, in an attempt to keep yourself from yelling (or worse), you interrupt them to say that you will take them out for ice cream if they will just agree to play quietly and let go of their grievances. Voila! They quiet down. You begin to relax. There is peace again in the world. Feels good.
Giving rewards to stop bad behavior already in progress is not reinforcement…It’s begging. At best, nothing is learned. At worst, you’ve just admitted that peace comes at a price. Technically, the only person being reinforced in this scenario is you, and it’s called “negative reinforcement.” Your children are rewarding you for doing something nice by removing (hence the term “negative”) an unfavorable stimulus (i.e., bickering). Who’s in charge now?
When it comes to social and behavioral learning, reinforcement is not always an option. In these cases, the best course of action is – to use the technical term – punishment, but not the kind that involves pain or humiliation. In most cases, to punish appropriately is to remove an expected privilege. Returning to the rainy day scenario, you might consider giving a warning that continued bickering and fighting will lead to loss of screen time or removal of Legos. Whatever you decide, it has to be something that you are willing and planning to carry out if you do not get the expected response. Otherwise, the threat of punishment only damages your credibility and authority.
Here’s a simple rule courtesy of psychologist and author Thomas Phelan. If you want to encourage your children to do something (i.e., “start behaviors”), reinforcement is the way to go. If you request that a child stop doing something – bickering with a sibling, for example – and he refuses, then a consequence is in order. For more parenting pointers, I recommend Dr. Phelan’s book, 1-2-3 Magic.
One final point about reinforcement and consequences: they don’t work 100 percent of the time. The hard truth is that the best of all responses might fail to achieve your goal in that moment. This type of learning takes place over time, and it involves pushing you to deliver a consequence or withhold a reward. It can be terribly frustrating. There are times when you have run out of energy, patience and tact, when you’d sell your soul for a bit of peace. Your child’s short-term happiness – and yours for that matter – may take a back seat to the final outcome. When you are playing the long-game of effective parenting, you have to take a few hits.