I bet you’ve come across the term “positive reinforcement” before – but honestly, do you know what it really means? Better still, do you know how to apply it to go from the (*yawn*) nagging parent to a master motivator?
Some time back, I decided to jump onto the “positive reinforcement” bandwagon.
Except, it wasn’t really clear to me what exactly it is that I should be doing.
The worst part? The more I read about it, the more confused I got.
This article is the result of trying to sort through some of the confusion and figuring out how we can be masters of applying “positive reinforcement” to raise terrific, internally motivated kids.
(Note: If long, detailed articles aren’t your cup of tea just scroll down to the bottom of the article for a handy-dandy illustration that captures the gist of the article!)
Ok, let’s dive right in.
Use Praise/Reward Instead of Criticism/Punishment. Duh!
So, the first thing I understood is that I should use praise/reward instead of criticism/punishment. The argument is that criticizing or punishing often kills a child’s spirit and self esteem. If you focus instead on praise/reward you reinforce the child’s self worth and since children inherently want to please their parents, this will make them want to behave instead of misbehave.
A couple of tips to handle situation that necessitate criticism/punishment –
- Describe the situation instead of fixing blameFor example: Instead of screaming “I told you to sit down while eating your dinner. Now, look what a mess you’ve made […]”, try saying “If we don’t sit down when we eat, food falls everywhere and makes a mess”. Stop at that and get your child in the habit of cleaning his/her mess. And wait to catch at least one instance when the child eats without making a mess. And show your appreciation. Rinse, repeat, until things turn around.
- Say nothingChildren know when they have made a mistake. Instead of lecturing them, just take yourself out of the situation and let them work it out. Once they realize by themselves that they made a mistake and take ownership of it, they are less likely to repeat it. This may sound simple, but from my own experience, this is one of the hardest tips to follow!
- Express your feelingsInstead of lecturing, just express your feelings – “We need to leave now, baby. Otherwise mama will be late for work and get into trouble. And mama becomes sad if she gets into trouble…” Amazingly, this works a lot better than criticizing my daughter for being tardy when I bark out the marching orders as we try to get out the door in the mornings.
- Put things in perspective and let things slideThere, I said it! “Let things slide”…. For someone who is a bit (?) of a control freak, even saying this out loud is pretty painful. Most of the time, I can’t get myself to do this, but telling myself very often “She is just a 5 year old, if not 5-year-olds who else will […]”, does seem to help. 🙂
OK, so slowly I got in the habit of avoiding criticism and waiting to catch my daughter in the act of doing something good, and then showering her with praise.
Except, as I looked more into it, I began to read that –
a) Not all praise is created equal – i.e., there is a right way to praise and a not-so-effective way to praise; and
b) While it may result in good short terms gains, excessive praise may have some negative long term consequences.
Ohhhhhhhkay, moving on….
Praising the Right Way
When I started to focus on figuring out what is the right way to praise, here’s what I found out –
- Make the praise descriptive instead of genericFor example: Instead of a generic “good job!” say, “I like the way your shared the toy with your friend!” or “You did a good job cleaning up your toys today!” The equivalent of “good job” in adult terms is like saying “Let’s meet in downtown” whereas a descriptive praise is equivalent to saying “Let’s meet at the intersection of 2nd street and Colorado st.” — the latter is a whole lot more helpful, right?The logic behind this is that kids inherently need our attention. By telling them exactly what it is that they did right, we empower them with the knowledge of exactly what to repeat to get our attention again.
- Focus on the effort instead of the outcomeFor example: When you have no clue what the masterpiece that your toddler just handed you is, instead of faking “That’s so beautiful” say, “Wow, it looks like you put a lot of thought in it, what do we have here?” or “Wow, you used so many colors to make this picture so beautiful” etc.The logic is, by focusing on the effort instead of outcome, we can avoid raising praise junkies, whose sole intention is to finish the project to get praised by us instead of taking pride in their own effort and what they have accomplished.
- Focus on encouragement instead of judgementFor example: Instead of “I like that you cleaned up your room” which could send the signal that “mommy likes me only when I am being good” etc., say “You cleaned up all the toys! The room looks so clean and beautiful! Thank you!”The idea here is, instead of “I like” you focus on “You did” and then highlight the consequences and express your happiness about it. No, you don’t have to break up all your responses in that way as long as the general message you send your children is that they did something right that resulted in good consequences, instead of your opinion/judgement of the situation. This helps the children develop a sense of internal evaluation that lets them take responsibility for their action and pride in their achievements.
Raising Internally Motivated Kids instead of Externally Motivated Ones
So that leads us to the holy grail of what we should be doing as positively reinforcing parents – cultivate internally motivated kids instead of externally motivated ones.
Frankly, I am a long way off from getting to this point. I hope this month’s exercise in being positive, and specifically this week’s focus on positive reinforcement, will help me get a little closer. I just want to put a few options on the table based on what I have read. Please note that this is not all from experience (yet!) and this is by no means a comprehensive list. If you have a few additional tips, I would love to hear them – just drop a comment below!
OK, so, here we go –
- Acknowledge, but do not explicitly praiseIt sounds so simple, yet, it is very hard to let your child know that you agree what she did was right without resorting to platitudes like “good job!” or even descriptive praise like “I love that you cleaned your room”. But, once a good parent-child bond is established, you can just stand by the door of the clean room and smile appreciatively or pat your child on the head to let them know that yes, you do agree with their internal assessment that what they did is right, and that’ll do the trick.
- Ask questions, instead of jumping in with praiseWhile you work up the way to just a nod of the head, there are other options to let your child know that you have noticed without having to shower them with excessive praise. One of the suggestions by Dr. Alfie Kohn in the article Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job!” is to just ask questions. So, in the example above, you could just describe what you see in the form of a question “Did you do some magic in here? This place looks so clean and neat!” or “Hey, it looks like put away all the toys back in their place! Did you figure out all by yourself what goes where?” and then let the kids describe with a beaming smile how they put away all the stuff and cleaned up the room. Then you can smile and pat their head 🙂
- Sum it up in one wordAnother option, as described in the book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, the authors suggest that in place of praising, you could try to sum it up in a one word description. So, going back to the room cleaning example, you would describe some of the action like “You put all the toys back in their place. Now, that’s what I call organization!” or “You cleaned your room even before I had to remind you. That’s what is known as taking initiative! ”
- Say “Thank You”As pointed out by Dionna in the article 7 Alternatives to Telling Your Child “Good Job!”, many of the situations where we use “good job!” or empty praise are situations that makes our life easier. So, why not come out and say it? In the example above, “Thank you for cleaning up your room. Now, that’s one less thing I have to worry about when the guests arrive!” will convey a heck of a lot more than “good job!”
So there, we have the whole positive reinforcement spectrum. And here is a handy-dandy illustration of it.
(PS: If you like what you are reading, join our growing communityof fine parents to start making lasting changes in your family!)
Honestly, at least for me, going from Nagging/Criticism (“Sit down when you eat, you are making such a mess”) to whatever it is I need to be doing to get her to want to sit down and enjoy a meal in peace has not been easy. As far as I am concerned, my goal is to stay out of pink/red and make progress towards the green/blue.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Ok, so for our 2-minute action plan, here are the questions –
- Where on the positive reinforcement spectrum are you? (It is normal to be all over the place, even within the course of a single day, as we react differently to different situations. Just think of one time period – ex. this morning from breakfast to lunch and try to figure out what you did the most – punish, criticize, bribe, reward, praise, encourage or work towards an increased level of internal motivation?)
- What is the one thing you need to stop doing when you interact with your kids to start moving towards the right of the spectrum?
As always, I urge you to put it in writing. I firmly believe that the simple act of committing your thoughts to words can nudge you to make some progress. You can scribble it on a piece of paper, put it on your blog, your facebook status, tweet it or use the comments section below.
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Throughout the rest of the week, we will monitor our reactions. The one thing that we must focus on trying to completely avoid is criticism. After that, it is a matter of slowly moving the scale more and more to the right – one little sentence, one little act, one little response at a time!