Use Positive Reinforcement

The “Let's Get Positive” Exercise

If you're used to focusing on negative behavior, it can be hard to start using positive reinforcement techniques. Let's practice being positive. In order to give positive reinforcement, you need to recognize specifically what to reinforce. Once you recognize the positive behavior, you can use descriptive encouragement. Here's a quick exercise for you. Just for the next day or so:

  • Make a list of things your child does right or well.
  • Blow off the negative (let it go free!).
  • Frame each positive thing in positive terminology (“He got dressed easily and got along with his sister at breakfast”) instead of in the negative (“he didn't fight getting dressed, for once, and he didn't whack Nikki at breakfast”).
  • Notice how the behavior of even a “misbehaving” child is mostly positive.
Tales from the Parent Zone

Every morning, when I get into my car to drive my daughter to school, the most obnoxious beeping noise occurs until I buckle my seat belt. This is “negative reinforcement,” and it can be an effective way of encouraging proper behavior. In order to get rid of that bleeping beep, I buckle up. A balance between negative and positive reinforcement is important for a child's development.

Prevent Problems with Descriptive Encouragement

If you tell a child he's a pathetic, sniveling worm, he'll either go to the garden and start eating dirt, or he'll rebel, move to the other coast, and never speak to you again (and good for him!). If, on the other hand, you support and encourage him, he'll do his best for you. When you're using encouragement:

  • Keep it very specific. “I noticed you worked for an hour on your homework.” “You certainly emptied the dishwasher fast and well!” The more specific you get, the more your child will learn to figure out for herself when she is doing a good job.
  • Say it deliberately. Remind yourself to comment on positive behavior. It takes awhile to make this kind of commentary second nature, so it will have to be deliberate for a while. It may even feel forced. That's okay!
  • Effort counts. You can give descriptive encouragement for effort even if the results don't turn out so well. “You worked very hard on your homework, Adam. I'm sure next time you will get the right answer.”
  • Focus on improvement. “Your arms have gotten much stronger from all the swimming practice you've been doing.”
  • Say it often.

It's Not Praise, and It's Not General

When you're using encouragement, steer away from the following pitfalls:

  • General encouragement, “You're a great kid!” and “You're so smart!” is nice to hear, but it isn't very effective at promoting change. General encouragement too often shows that you aren't really paying enough attention to the child, or her process, to make thoughtful, helpful, respectful comments about her behavior. Some experts think too much praise or general encouragement can even be damaging, making a child dependent on others for positive feedback. In other words, “How am I doing, Mom,” replaces, “Wow, I'm doing great” or, “I kinda flubbed that test, I'd better work harder.”
  • There's a school of parenting (I think it's affiliated with Wimpy University) that praises kids all the time. “Excellent job walking down the street, Emily.” Too much of this constant, empty praise, and your child will stop trusting you, or even listening. “Great job!” becomes empty, unless you mean it.
  • Never lie to your child about how he's doing. If you tell a kid what a scholar he is when he's earning the lowest grades in the school district, you're lying, and both of you will know it. Your child is not stupid. Encourage the positive (“You're working hard to do well next time,” or “It took courage to risk and fail”)—but don't lie.
  • There's nothing wrong with hearing that you're a great kid (it promotes a general sense of being loved and approved of), but it works best when it's very specific. Telling a child, “Wow, you're so mature” puts a lot of stress on a child to be mature, to never be immature, and to never disappoint you. Children under this kind of stress tend to rebel, hard.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to a Well-Behaved Child © 1999 by Ericka Lutz. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit Amazon's web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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