Positive Reinforcement Is Worth A Shot, And Here's Why

by Wendy Wisner
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Hands down, one of the hardest things about being a parent is figuring out how to effectively discipline your kids. Ten years into this parenting thing, and I will freely admit that I don’t have it all figured out. I never will. It seems like one particular method will work for a little while, and then my kids will turn around and test the limits in a completely different way. Plus, both of my kids have strikingly different personalities, and what works for one just won’t work at all for the other.

The way I discipline my kids is part instinct, part theory, and part crossing my fingers and praying that they’ll freaking listen to me and I won’t screw them up too badly in the process. But if there is anything I have really learned, it’s that the more positive and kind I am in the way that I discipline them, the better, the more effective. They are more apt to respond, follow through, respect me, and learn from the experience.

More and more in my parenting journey, I’ve been adopting the theory of “positive reinforcement,” when it comes to discipline — and I’ve consistently seen pretty remarkable results. Positive reinforcement is as simple as it sounds: It’s praising your kids when they are cooperative, behave well, and treat others with respect. You can do it while they’re showing signs of compliance (“Oh my goodness, I love how well you’re wiping the dinner table!”) or after the fact (“It was amazing to see how kind you were to your brother today when he was upset.”).

The key, of course, is to offer this praise with genuine warmth and kindness — and to make a conscious, deliberate attempt to do so consistently and often. One of the best things about positive reinforcement is that making such an effort and following through actually fills you with a bit of joy and helps you to see the ways that your kids are actually trying hard to be good people, no matter how often they seem to misbehave.

Besides verbal praise, positive reinforcement can also come in the form of rewards and gifts. Of course, then you run the risk of setting up the expectation that gifts will be available every single time, and your child might become more focused on the toy or sticker than on the acknowledgment of good behavior. That’s not what anyone wants. However, when done infrequently and with care, I don’t see the problem with taking your kids out to a movie or for ice cream when they’ve had a week of stellar behavior.

There are obviously times that your child needs something different than a high-five or a glowing smile. Kids who are acting disrespectful, hurting others, or not listening no matter what you do might need to be removed from the situation, or possibly have a privilege taken away to reinforce that what they are doing is unacceptable. But if positive reinforcement is practiced on a consistent basis, you might find that moments of misbehavior will diminish over time, and that when your children do misbehave, they are more likely to pay attention to your redirection or discipline.

The hope, of course, is that the more you reinforce the good, the more your kids will want to behave well. I, for one, have seen great results when I’ve made positive reinforcement a focus with my kids. But don’t just take my word for it. Science backs up these claims, showing in study after study that positive discipline (including positive reinforcement) is not only a more effective form of discipline than negative reinforcement or punishment, but it is also less harmful to children on a long-term basis.

A 2016 study published in The Journal of Marriage and Family looked at 3,279 families with young children. The study looked specifically at how the mothers disciplined their kids, comparing the kids who had been spanked (negative reinforcement/punishment) to the ones who had received more “maternal warmth” (positive reinforcement). The study found that the kids who had been spanked had an increase in aggression, whereas the kids who had received “maternal warmth” had greater “social competence” and did not show increased aggression.

The authors of the study conclude: “Warmth was a significantly stronger predictor of children’s social competence than spanking, suggesting that warmth may be a more effective way to promote children’s social competence than spanking.” In other words, positive reinforcement produces significantly more well-adjusted kids.

Another study, also from 2016, showed that positive discipline and positive reinforcement could even trump a child’s genetic predisposition to antisocial behavior and callousness. The study, published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, looked at the impact adoptive parents had on children who were genetically predisposed to what the researchers call “early callous-unemotional behaviors.” The researchers found that when the adoptive parents practiced positive reinforcement, even the kids who had been predicted to have diagnosable behavioral problems did not end up having them.

“The results emphasize that positive reinforcement from parents can help buffer existing genetic risk, even in children at high risk for persistent antisocial behavior,” Luke W. Hyde, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, and co-author of the study, tells Medscape.

Practicing positive reinforcement isn’t easy, even if you’ve done the research and feel confident in your decisions. Many of us weren’t raised that way and are still given messages by the media, family, and friends that we need to be tough on our kids to make sure we do not raise entitled, selfish brats. Not only that, but we are all human, and it’s entirely normal to feel intensely frustrated with our kids at times — to yell, threaten, and just be grouchy overall.

That is all understandable, for sure, and I believe that what our kids need most is a parent they can trust and who will stick by them no matter what (even if that parent yells more than he or she would like to!). Still, I think it behooves us all to make an extra effort to practice things like positive reinforcement, and positive parenting, even if it feels harder or outside of our comfort zone at first. The payoff is truly worth it.

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