What Parents Need To Know About Negative Reinforcement

by Team Scary Mommy
Originally Published: 
two happy children watching laptop
Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels

One of the things no one ever tells you before you become a parent is how difficult it is to discipline your child. No, not in the sense of feeling guilty about giving them a time-out or taking away screen time for bad or risky behavior (they earned that). But more in the sense that the standards of what is considered acceptable punishments seem to be constantly changing. Something can be deemed the “most effective” method one week, and the following week, a study gets published on why that same technique can psychologically scar your kid. And, of course, as parents and especially as mothers, we’re constantly under scrutiny from our family, mother-in-law, pushy friends, strangers on the bus — basically all of society — just waiting to judge our parenting style and the way we handle less-than-ideal behavior. So, even if you’ve heard of negative reinforcement, you may not have considered it. But should you?

Here’s the thing: Punishing (or not punishing) your child is not a straightforward activity. To help provide some guidance, here’s what you should know about negative reinforcement, including some examples.

What is negative reinforcement?

When you first heard (or read) the term “negative reinforcement,” you probably mentally categorized it alongside discipline and punishment. And while that’s not incorrect, in that they’re different ways to change (or try to change) a person’s behavior, it’s a little more complicated than that.

Let’s start with positive reinforcement — a concept that’s likely familiar. That’s when you want a person (or pet) to begin and then continue to practice a certain behavior. To encourage them to keep doing the thing, you give them some type of reward. That way, the next time they’re considering whether or not to partake in a particular action, they may first stop to think, “Well, the last time I put the toilet seat down after I peed, I got an M&M. I would like another M&M, so I might as well put down the toilet seat.”

So, what is negative reinforcement, you ask? According to Medical News Today, the definition of negative reinforcement is “the encouragement of certain behaviors by removing or avoiding a negative outcome or stimuli.” In a parenting context, it might be easier to think about negative reinforcement in terms of easing up on a rule or granting certain privileges when your child behaves the way you’d like them to. An obvious example of this is extending (or eliminating) a teenager’s curfew once they’ve gotten to the point of proving they’re responsible enough for that to happen.

How does negative reinforcement differ from negative punishment?

By now, you’ve probably figured out that punishment — both positive punishment and negative punishment — is something else altogether. Here’s how Positive Psychology breaks it down:

  • Positive punishment: You add something to the mix intending to make the undesired behavior less likely to reoccur (i.e., you pose a consequence you know the subject will find unpleasant to deter the unwanted behavior).
  • Negative punishment: Instead of addition, this type of punishment involves a subtraction. In other words, you take something away from the mix intending to make the undesired behavior less likely to reoccur (i.e., something the subject enjoys is removed to deter the unwanted behavior).

Basically, instead of giving something positive — like a treat or an expansion of privileges — to get a person to change their behavior, punishment is making sure they have a less pleasant experience.

The term “negative punishment” makes sense (we think of punishment as a negative thing, after all). Some examples of negative punishment include being put in time-out, grounded, or denied precious screen time. Let’s say a child throws a tantrum in the store over a tablet. In the future, the parent would punish them by restricting their screen time.

Do not be tricked by “positive punishment” — there’s really nothing positive about it. Some examples of positive punishment include yelling at/scolding a child, or making kids do an especially undesirable chore (think scrubbing toilets, cleaning the kitty litter box, etc.) when they misbehave.

What are some examples of negative reinforcement?

If you’re interested in trying negative reinforcement, either at home or in the classroom, here are a few examples, courtesy of Positive Psychology:

  • Allowing your child to go out without a big sibling chaperone when they start following the household rules
  • Removing some of the parental controls on your TV when a child shows that they can handle more mature content
  • In the classroom: Encouraging students to cooperate with classroom policies by making one more relaxed (like getting an extra day on homework or having five more minutes in the morning to get themselves settled for the day)
  • Making your child’s curfew later after they’ve demonstrated responsibility and respect for the house rules
  • Eliminating a chore from a child’s to-do list to reward them for properly completing their other chores
  • When the fire alarm goes off, people rush out of the building because the sound is associated with danger
  • Let’s say a child screams and throws a fit when they see brussel sprouts on their plate, and their parents remove the vegetables. In the future, the child is likely to exhibit the same behavior when vegetables are on their plate again.

Here are a few more examples to help you better understand the concept of negative reinforcement.

  • Some cars buzz or make a bell sound when you start the vehicle without putting on your seatbelt first. The annoying buzzing sound is the negative reinforcer.
  • When a mother tells a child to clean up their room, and the child does as their told, the scolding is a negative reinforcer to clean.
  • A college student takes time to study for an exam to avoid getting a lousy grade. Here, the low grade is the negative reinforcer.
  • A husband snores, so his wife wears earmuffs to bed to block out the noise. Now she wears them each night so she can sleep soundly.
  • When training a dog, the owner pushes its bottom down to sit. Once it is sitting, she moves her hand. The negative reinforcement is the owner removing her hand from the dog’s bottom after it sits down.
  • A neighbor picks up his dog’s poop to keep his neighbor from yelling at him.
  • When the child hears the microwave beeping, he turns it off.

Of course, all kids are different. So, when it comes to promoting a behavior change, allow time for some trial and error.

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