REINFORCEMENT: BETTER THAN REWARDS

You may be a product of the “gold star era” when good behavior and achievement were rewarded with stickers. Maybe your mother’s kitchen—or your second-grade classroom—was even decorated with a “star chart” that resembled this table:

 

Making bed Eating vegetables Doing chores Picking up toys
MIRIAM           X            X
JASON          X          X
ANDREA           X          X
LUKE          X         X

–so everyone knew who were the “best” and “worst” kids in the group.

It certainly gave the “good” kids something to be proud of. On the other hand, those with “low-star” records tended to accept the implication they were “bad” or “lazy” or “stubborn”—and to develop a “why should I disappoint everyone?” attitude. If you couldn’t be as “good” as your brother, well, there were other ways to stand out from the crowd—and even if those ways sent you to your room, you had more fun overall.

Rewards do have a tendency, if not actually to encourage unwanted behavior, at least to give children the idea that the main reason for doing the “right” thing is because you’ll get something back for it. More than one parent (or, more likely, a teacher to whose class the child has just been initiated) has seen an “angel” turn into a “brat” after being told that from now on you sit still, clean up after yourself, and finish your work on time simply because it’s expected of you—and you don’t get anything extra just for doing your duty.

More parents these days are wising up to the fact that everyone is better off learning early on to do the productive thing simply for the joy of being a contributing member of the group. The secret to teaching this attitude is reinforcement—supplying positive attention when someone behaves in the way you prefer, dismissing it as unobtrusively as possible when they “act up.” We all instinctively prefer human approval to material gain; it’s just that children only learn to separate the two when they regularly get the former apart from the latter.

Understand a few things reinforcement is not:

  • It’s not gushing and obviously overloaded praise. Even three-year-olds know insincere flattery when they hear it. Real reinforcement is warm, sincere—and as low- or high-key as the situation calls for.
  • It’s not completely ignoring all unwanted behavior—just giving it no more attention than it absolutely requires. Sucking a thumb can be safely ignored. Slurping of soup warrants a brief and gentle explanation of proper table manners. Rambunctious behavior that distracts everyone else calls for being dismissed to time-out (or to play outdoors) in one sentence or less.
  • It’s not just a matter of noticing specific things that are done right. General positive attention that acknowledges a child as a full member of the group (rather than making him feel “too young” to contribute) is reinforcement, teaching the kid he doesn’t have to make a scene to get attention.

Examples of True Reinforcement

  •  “I really appreciate how quiet you were while I was on the phone.”
  • “You must have really enjoyed working on that project to do it so well.”
  • “Can you tell me about your picture? It looks like you put a lot of detail into your drawing.”
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