All children need discipline and boundaries, and positive reinforcement is one of the most useful techniques available. However, there is a lot of confusion about what positive reinforcement actually is.
Children crave attention from their parents or caregivers. Unfortunately, many of them find that they get the most attention when they misbehave and, as even negative attention is better than no attention, they will quickly learn to act up. If they are ignored when they are playing quietly and nicely with their little friends or treating their siblings kindly, and given a lot of attention when they throw their food on the floor or knock another child over, they will soon learn that if they want attention, they have to be naughty. This is known as negative reinforcement. Over time, a pattern can be established, and parents can find that they have to use stricter and stricter punishments to have any impact on the child at all.
A much more useful approach is to use positive reinforcement when possible. This means giving the child more attention when they are being good. This includes verbalising praise so that it is clear why they are getting the attention. Thus, if Belinda is being kind to her little brother, you would say something like, “What a great girl, Belinda! You are being very nice to Tommy. See how much he is enjoying playing with you. I am really glad to see you both having such a nice time.” Conversely, if Belinda is bullying or mistreating her little brother in any way, her behaviour needs to be stopped and redirected, while making as little fuss as possible about what she is doing. Over time, Belinda will learn that she gets more attention for positive behaviours, and she will be more motivated to behave in a positive way.
Using positive reinforcement as a parenting tool does not mean that you should never raise your voice or punish your child. If they are doing something very naughty, and above all if they are doing something that could hurt themselves or someone else, they need to be stopped immediately. There is also definitely space in your parenting toolbox for techniques such as the naughty step or time out. When issuing punishments, however, the key is to remain calm and controlled and, above all, not to reward the child by putting all the focus in the home on them.
Parents who manage to consistently apply positive reinforcement techniques generally find that, over time, their children become ever more motivated to behave well and enjoy the positive attention that results. There can be huge benefits in terms of how the child behaves, but also in reducing stress levels throughout the family, as everyone is shouting less and enjoying one another’s company more. Many parents report that their children pick up the technique and start using it on them as kids find out that if they tell Mum or Dad how great they are whenever they produce a favourite meal, they will be more likely to make it again soon!
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