Parenthood is one of the most challenging endeavors we embark on as adults. During its most stressful moments, the journey of parenthood can often lead us to dwell on what didn’t go right or what our children did that we found upsetting, disruptive, or frustrating. Focusing on our children’s less-than-ideal behaviors negatively affects us as parents and our children. While you should address negative behavior and deal with it, we should also focus on what our children did that deserves recognition and acknowledgment, whether putting their dishes in the sink without being asked or helping their friends with their homework. Our children deserve positive reinforcement and to feel empowered. And often, focusing on the good can benefit the individual and the whole family.
What is Positive Reinforcement, and Why is It Important?
Positive reinforcement, a term developed by B.F. Skinner, is when a desired item or experience is given to someone following their engagement in a behavior that you want to increase the frequency of.1
As a board-certified behavior analyst, I can define behavior in analytical terms, but when it comes to my children — and their ability to push my buttons — everything goes out the window. After a few deep breaths and consuming a piece of chocolate or two, I often have to ask myself: when we give our children attention for only their “bad” behaviors, what are we teaching them? We show them that no matter what they do “right,” we will only focus on what they did “wrong.”
I recently read about the research of Dr. John Gottman, who found that in a healthy marriage, for every negative interaction, there are five positive ones. What if we consider this in our relationships with our children and how we reinforce them? For every one negative behavior that we focus on or give attention to, we should reinforce our children for five desired or positive behaviors.2
What Should You Reinforce?
This is a tricky question. We want to use positive reinforcement for behaviors we want to see again. But one could argue you want to reinforce behaviors that are beneficial for you as a family unit and your child as an individual.
Some beneficial behaviors to your family include unloading the dishwasher and helping a younger sibling finish a puzzle. Behaviors you might reinforce that are beneficial to your child as an individual include trying a new extracurricular activity, completing their homework for the evening, and expressing frustration verbally rather than screaming. These behaviors help your child grow, discover who they are, and engage with the world around them. And ultimately, empowered individuals help to create an empowered, cohesive, and strong family unit.
Examples of Positive Reinforcement
Figuring out how to use positive reinforcement requires knowing what motivates your children. Positive reinforcement might come in verbal praise or high-fives for a child who enjoys social interactions. For a child who loves the outdoors, it might be a visit to the playground on the way home from school. There is no “right” or “wrong” form of positive reinforcement. The key is that you reinforce your child immediately after they engage in the desired behavior so they make the connection between what they have done and the reinforcement they receive.
For example, we have been working on my daughter getting herself dressed independently for school in the morning. Now, my daughter adores dancing. So, on a recent morning, when she dressed for school, we immediately had a five-minute celebratory dance party in our living room. She could connect that she was having a dance party because she got dressed by herself.
Knowing Where to Start and the Next Steps
Start by making sure you positively reinforce what your child can do. You’re developing a positive climate and relationship by reinforcing these skills and behaviors. Then, look at things your child might struggle with. Take putting their laundry away as an example. Start by encouraging them to bring their laundry to their room from the basement. Once that’s consistent, start reinforcing folding their laundry. Even if it doesn’t make it into their closet or dresser (at least it got out of the laundry basket!) Then, once that’s consistent, positively reinforce them when they put the clothes away.
Rather than harping on what they aren’t doing, you focus on what they ARE doing. And you might just be surprised at the (happy) snowball effect this might have. The more positivity you bring to the table, the more confidence you will see in your child, and the more empowered they will feel to take on the day and the challenges it might bring. All I ask is that you give positive reinforcement a try. You might be pleasantly surprised!