Here is one thing we know about ways to modify behavior: positive reinforcement works better than negative reinforcement. Praise and attention for desired behavior are more effective than punishments for undesired behaviors. Positive attention gets internalized as, “I am a worthwhile person” whereas a life of only criticism and consequences gets internalized as, “I am a failure.”
Unfortunately, some parents think of positive reinforcement as a reward in the colloquial sense and resist the idea of rewarding behavior that is expected of the child. Understanding the distinction between a reinforcement and a reward and when to use each can add some finesse to your parenting. Rewards can help establish an expected behavior and reinforcement can maintain it.
A positive reinforcement occurs after a behavior, and encourages the behavior to occur again in the future. It is used to increase, strengthen, or maintain a learned behavior. Though it is positive, as opposed to negative, it is not a reward in the colloquial sense of the word. For example, an expected outcome is a positive reinforcement. Saying, “please” and getting what is requested, studying and getting a good grade, or being nice to a sibling and getting their cooperation in return are all positive reinforcements. In this way, a positive reinforcement is not necessarily a reward. It is not an extra bonus.
Whereas reinforcements increase, strengthen or maintain a behavior, a reward is used more when the desire is to teach or change a behavior. Rewards are used to get someone motivated to try a new desirable behavior instead of engaging in the current undesirable behavior. Rewards prime the pump.
Whether the undesirable behavior is occurring because it is somehow inherently reinforcing, is an impulse, or a bad habit, a reward that is more reinforcing than the existing gratification can be effective in changing the behavior. Rewards can be effective in helping a child replace a negative behavior with a positive behavior. That reward can and should then be faded away once the new behavior is established. Reward immediately, and choose a reward that is meaningful to the child (and preferably not food or a costly material possession).
Many parents fear that if they use a reward the child will expect, demand or somehow become dependent upon being rewarded for behavior that is expected of them. But think about how you have weaned your child from other crutches – you may have helped your child learn to clean up their toys by initially making a game of it and doing it with them. You may have made it a contest they ‘won’ or given them a high five when they completed the task. You may have ‘bribed’ them with a video if they finished in a timely fashion. You used a reward as an enticement or incentive and then gradually dropped the external motivation once they had internal motivation.
Rewards are not ‘something for nothing’. They are a powerful and effective tool for behavior medication that you are likely already using. Why not up your game?