Many people equate discipline with punishment, but discipline originally comes from the Latin word "disciplinare," meaning "to teach." Positive reinforcement is a type of discipline that isn't a punishment, and it's recommended by major health organizations such as The American Academy of Pediatrics as a safe and effective method.
If you're curious about how positive reinforcement can work for you and your children, read on to learn what you need to know about positive reinforcement in parenting.
What Is Positive Reinforcement?
Positive reinforcement is a behavior modification strategy that emphasizes praising and rewarding positive behavior while ignoring misbehavior (unless there's a safety risk). Like all behavior modification strategies, the idea behind positive reinforcement is to deliberately eliminate or reduce some behaviors while encouraging others.
Children naturally desire their parent's attention and will engage in behaviors that you pay more attention to — even if that attention is negative. The American Academy of Pediatrics considers parental attention "the most powerful tool for effective discipline".
Positive Reinforcement vs. Negative Reinforcement
Negative reinforcement uses punishments or other harsh techniques to discourage a child from engaging in undesirable behavior. Research shows, though, that harsh punishments like yelling, shaming, and corporal punishment (spanking or other physical punishments) don't work long-term and can cause aggression and mental health problems over time. Spanking is associated with adverse outcomes similar to children who experienced physical abuse, including an increased risk of substance use disorder and suicide attempts.
In recent years, support for corporal punishment has been declining in the United States. The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages all parents to instead use healthy, non-aggressive discipline strategies like positive reinforcement.
Is Positive Reinforcement Effective?
While positive reinforcement can take time to work — children still have to learn that misbehavior doesn't get them extra attention — it can be effective with practice and consistency. Keep in mind that something like a tantrum doesn't stop immediately just because you ignore it — in the moment, it can get worse before it gets better. Positive reinforcement strategies are an investment in your child's long-term behavior that requires patience and persistence.
Positive reinforcement works because people repeat behaviors that lead to positive feelings. Using positive reinforcement with kids helps guide them to appropriate behaviors by using the positive feelings your children get from your attention and engagement.
Positive Reinforcement Benefits
Positive reinforcement discipline has many benefits beyond "working" to elicit desired behaviors, including:
- Creating a stronger bond with your child
- Teaching your child how to acknowledge and regulate difficult emotions
- Boosting your child's self-confidence
How to Use Positive Reinforcement
"Catch" Your Child Behaving Well
In fast-paced modern life, it's easy to get caught in the trap of only paying attention to your child misbehaving and going about your business when they're behaving well. To practice positive reinforcement, you'll need to shift your behavior and pay attention to when your child's doing well. Meanwhile, it's best to give specific praise that acknowledges the behavior you'd like to see repeated, rather than generic praise such as "Good job!".
Positive reinforcement examples:
- "I noticed you took your plate to the sink right after lunch, and I really appreciate that!"
- "I saw you were sharing your special treat with your cousin. You're such a caring, generous person."
- Smile at, hug, or acknowledge your child when they listen to you quickly
Ignore Misbehavior That Isn't a Safety Hazard
If your child isn't in danger, try to ignore behavior you don't want to see repeated, even if that means letting them have a tantrum in the line at the grocery store. This can be difficult for parents, but even negative attention like yelling teaches children that they should misbehave to get your attention. This practice is called active ignoring — intentionally withdrawing attention from a misbehaving child and instead giving them attention after they stop. Of course, if your child is misbehaving in an unsafe way, such as running out into the street, prioritize their physical safety.
When your child begins to calm down from a tantrum, give them praise and attention — "I'm really proud of how you're calming yourself down. Can we do some deep breaths together?".
Later, when you're both calm, you can talk to your child about what happened. What were they feeling when they started misbehaving? Do they have any ideas about how you can avoid that scenario in the future? Try to validate your child's emotions and experiences while maintaining boundaries — you can connect and empathize without viewing their behavior as appropriate.
Give Your Child Undivided Attention Every Day
Children who aren't getting enough adult attention regularly will try to get it however they can, sometimes by behaving poorly. Make a habit of giving your child some undivided attention every day. Even if you only have a few minutes, take the time to connect with your child by doing something they enjoy, like:
- Taking a walk around the block after dinner
- Reading books before bedtime
- Drawing pictures
- Cooking a recipe together — consider teaching your child a family recipe or letting your child choose dinner
Your family culture and your child's interests will determine the best activities for you to do together. The exact activity isn't as crucial as being intentional about giving your child undivided attention.