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Thousand Oaks

Positive Reinforcement Parenting

Many parents find themselves getting frustrated, yelling and repeating themselves over and over again while attempting to parent their children. Some try taking things — like phones or video games — away from their kids or sending them to a time-out chair or room.

Is there a better way? Let me suggest a way you can get better results by using positive behavior reinforcement, which I have seen work for many families.

There are four general techniques for behavior modification: positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishment. Positive reinforcement is adding something to increase a behavior (e.g., paychecks). Negative reinforcement is taking away something to increase a behavior (e.g., taking a rock out of your shoe). Positive punishment is adding something to decrease a behavior (e.g., yelling/scolding). Negative punishment is taking away something to decrease a behavior (e.g., money via fines/tickets).

The most popular form of behavior modification is negative punishment; however, the most effective is positive reinforcement. Think of speeding and cell phone tickets. Even after getting a ticket, many still speed or use a cell phone while driving. This is because the threat of having something of value taken away does not often change behavior in the long term. Sure, you may slow down or throw your phone on the passenger’s seat when you see a cop, but the ticket does not produce consistent change.

Alternatively, how often do you go to work, and why? You go daily, or whatever your schedule is, because if you don’t, you won’t get paid. Getting what you want shapes behavior more than getting what you don’t want.

To apply this to family life and parenting, let me introduce a concept I call, “You get nothing, you earn everything.” This sounds harsh but is actually empowering. In a family, everyone should have some basic rights and privileges just for belonging and being loved. Obviously, everyone has a bed, clothes, food, and maybe even some form of entertainment. But above that, it comes down to choices that lead to other desirable things. In a nutshell, “If you do everything you are supposed to, you can earn anything you want.”

For example, if your teenager wants a car — great. What conversation do you have with him so he can earn that car? Does he need to get a job outside the home? Does he need to demonstrate responsibility in schoolwork or extracurricular activity? What about a toddler who wants a cookie? Does she need to ask nicely or wait until a certain time?

This method empowers you to find ways to say “yes,” which puts boundaries and responsibilities on the child appropriate to the child’s age. In this way, you can empower your kids to make good choices and exercise responsibility through planning, vision-casting, self-control, focusing on goals and much more.

How does this play out in a real-life, stressful scenario? Say your kids are on the verge of arguing and fighting. Something bad is brewing, and tempers are escalating. Instead of jumping in and yelling, “Don’t fight!” or threatening some punishment, you can calmly tell them that if they work together to get along, they can earn a later bedtime. In our household, it would go something like this:

  1. Take a breath and thank God for who they are. I might pray, “Lord, thank you for choosing me to raise these boys, and let their persistent attitudes and fierce love of justice be used for your glory as they grow up.” How’s that for taking a positive angle?
  2. Remind them of the expectation and what they are working toward in a positive direction. “It seems like you guys are struggling to get along. It’s really important for you to use respectful language, be kind to each other and work together if you want to have a later bedtime.”
  3. Based on the actions they choose, either praise them for following through on the expectation or explain that they have not earned their positive result. Also, state clearly when they can try again. This might sound like, “Thank you for making sure you treated each other nicely. It looks like you can still earn that extra time before bed.” Or, “Unfortunately, because of the way you were speaking to each other, your bedtime isn’t going to be later tonight. Let’s start getting ready for bed. Tomorrow, be sure to focus on being nicer to each other so you can stay up later then.”

I counsel families to give positive reinforcements in commensurate amounts at the time of meeting expectations or completing a task or day. If you give positive results before expectations are met, you may have to shift back to negative punishment (taking it away), and that doesn’t create the kind of forward-looking, positively reinforcing dynamic you want to achieve.

Consistency may be the hardest part. Sometimes it’s easier to take the path of least resistance and just give in. There are moments when that is called for, but as a rule, if you create the belief that there is a chance to get positive reinforcements without having to participate in the target behavior, people will try to capitalize on that chance. This is why gambling and abusing “free” government programs are so addictive and problematic. The same dynamic is at work in families.

Will this method work perfectly every time? No, and perfection isn’t the standard of success. But setting expectations and offering positive reinforcements will certainly help reduce the stress and volatility of dealing with difficult behaviors — and promote personal responsibility in kids of all ages.

Step one – Take the emotional lead by being calm.

Parent by example. Humans are wired to imitate the behavior of others. Attitudes and emotions you display will usually be mirrored back by your kids. It’s only natural to match someone’s tone, volume, emotion and actions — and this puts an important tool in your hands.

I was working with one mom who told me her family was getting into a routine of yelling at each other. I asked what would happen if she whispered. She went home and tried it, and the noise level in that household decreased as a result.

As parents, we set the tone of the family. Our kids will take our cues and follow our lead. When you feel overwhelmed, get yourself in check before engaging with a child. Take a deep breath. Let your heart rate go back to normal (or near it). Let that oxygen improve your mental clarity. Speak softly and slowly — in the way you want them to respond.

One way to stay calm is to reconnect with your positive emotions toward them. Focus on their sweet eyes or their hands or their voice — anything that reminds you how precious this individual is. That will help you choose a response that leads to positive results.

Step two – Set clear expectations.

Boundaries create freedom, and clear expectations reduce anxiety for kids. When I was in school, the least stressful assignments for me, regardless of the level of work they required, were the ones that came with a rubric. One way to help kids behave the way they should is by telling them what to do instead of what not to do. “Sit quietly with your hands folded” is a lot clearer than just “Don’t talk.”

Lists and other visual aids can help foster independence and success, too. Post a list of things to do where your child can see and engage with it. Setting expectations ahead of time also removes the frustration of having to explain rules in the moment when tensions can be higher. You can refer back to what was said or posted and remind them they are in charge of their own actions.


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