Positive reinforcement may seem like a buzzword, but it is actually very well studied and understood. By the experts, that is. For many parents, the questions outnumber the answers (it’s not like we got a book on how to do this!). If you aren’t an expert, and most of us aren’t, we’ve demystified this effective method.

The mysteries of education still elude many parents: how is everything done right? Am I doing the best I can as a parent? What if I’m not enough? Though self-doubt will never disappear, be sure that you’re on the right track. Of course, the road is long and tricky. There are times when you may even end up resenting your child. But even then, there’s no greater love. So how is it that you can teach him the essentials of life? A love for learning, self-improvement, basic etiquette and proper manners? Positive reinforcement!

What if I told you that you could be doing this all by yourself?

positive reinforcement guide

You don’t need to hire an expensive babysitter to make your kid behave the way he should. And what if I told you that you don’t even have to punish him, or scold him? Wouldn’t that be amazing? Well, you can. And it’s pretty simple. It’s called positive reinforcement, and it’s a pretty simple concept. All you have to do is read and understand the following methods, and you should be well on your way to a healthy family life. So here goes:

A Brief History of Positive Reinforcement

What is positive reinforcement? The term came from Burrhus Frederic Skinner, a 20th-century American behaviorist. He was known as a psychologist, and social philosopher, and also a renowned Professor at Harvard. For a concept so simple, it’s hard to imagine that it’s only been defined for the last century. But don’t worry, people have been using positive reinforcement unconsciously since the dawn of time. You’ve probably used it too at some point; you just don’t know it.

So let’s define positive reinforcement: it’s a training system devised to offer the trainee rewards upon completing one or more tasks he had been assigned to do. As many psychologists may tell you, positive reinforcement does not entail only treats, but all kinds of rewards – material or immaterial.

positive reinforcement guide

Head’s up: in this article, we will talk about how to use positive reinforcement for the benefit of your child. However, if you want to train your dog or other pets, feel free to adapt the methods. Remember that as much as there are similarities between how this works on pets and kids, there are also stark differences. This much should come as obvious.

Why Your Kid Needs Positive Reinforcement

Think about what your alternative to positive reinforcement is. Through this method, you give your kid rewards for each task he completes. These rewards can be anything from small bars of chocolate to one hour of video game time. The main thing that you need is consistency, about which we will talk about later.

A parent who does not use positive reinforcement still needs to use other methods to discipline their child. According to Skinner and other behavioral psychologists, these can be either negative reinforcement or punishment. The former entails either doing something to end some adverse effect (like an alarm clock) or doing something to prevent some negative effect (like getting poor results in school).

Punishment is itself divided into two types. Positive punishment, although it may seem like a contradiction of terms, is actually an effective short-term behavior altering method – if a child misbehaves, one can spank the child. Negative punishment, however, could be seen by some as unethical. Grounding your kid is a form of negative punishment, and we will talk about this a bit later.

As you may see, compared to other methods, positive reinforcement is much lighter. Skinner himself argues that it is the only way to obtain long-lasting behavioral changes. Punishment or negative reinforcement can work, but more often lead to basic short-term changes.

positive reinforcement guide

Positive and negative reinforcement may seem like similar approaches, based on the same principle of reward, but have different results, so be careful.

How to Apply Positive Reinforcement

First, you need a task to be completed by your child. This could be a chore or a simple behavior to be adopted in a specific social situation, such as being nice when around grandma. Then, this task needs to entail a consequence. If the consequence is the stopping or prevention of a negative effect, then that is negative reinforcement. On the other hand, the positive type of reinforcement is when a reward comes after said task reaches successful conclusion.

This eventually leads to that type of behavior being more likely to happen or enforced. Congratulate your kids on their successes and be happy along with them, no matter how minor their accomplishments. Sometimes, a mother’s happiness can multiply the child’s own, becoming itself a reward. If they don’t succeed, you can scold them, or tell them that they will perform better next time.

If your kids think of their parents as disapproving of something they do, they will be secretive about it. Try to approve and understand everything they do, and if it’s wrong, then use negative reinforcement. If your daughter wants to go out with her friends, it’s understandable. It’s better to have a productive talk about her friends and what she thinks of them, rather than openly criticize them. This is also a form of positive reinforcement.
positive reinforcement guide

The side-effects of negative reinforcement

If your little boy likes to play hours and hours of video games, it’s also understandable. Try to understand what he’s doing there, what is the game’s purpose and what he is supposed to do. Don’t just start nagging him, since that is the worst kind of negative reinforcement. Your kid will end up hating you, believing that you disapprove of anything he does, and subsequently become even more secretive and secluded.

Never ground your children, or restrict their access to their favorite things. This is completely unethical, and a prevention of liberty. Positive reinforcement is available instead. If they did something wrong, a pleasant talk out of it is usually the best way to go. If he starts to enjoy talking to you, he will eventually do so all by himself, without you pushing him to open up to you.

Punishment and Negative Reinforcement Still Work

The nastier ways of disciplining your child can still work. They have to be used only as a last resource, and never overused. Positive and negative reinforcement, as well as positive and negative punishment, can all be used excessively, and you don’t want that.

If you use any of the methods excessively, you may end up with an overly obedient child, or one who doesn’t do anything unless he gets a reward, or one living in fear of your nagging, or of punishment. So be careful, and the best advice would be follow your instincts and be natural in the way you treat your kid.

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