How to Use Positive Reinforcement to Manage Your Kids' Behavior

Share via:

AddThis is disabled because of cookie consent

Good parenting is a tricky balancing act. Creating a healthy relationship with your kids means enforcing rules without being overly authoritarian. You must firmly correct bad habits while celebrating wins – all without going overboard on either end. It is where practicing positive reinforcement can be incredibly beneficial. This trick recognizes the good despite the tantrums, the NOs, and the picky eating to encourage kids to try and be their best selves.

What Is Positive Reinforcement?

A mom, dad, and their toddler daughter making food together in the kitchen

Positive reinforcement is one of many approaches to parenting. It uses rewards to encourage desired behaviors. It's a form of positive discipline typically enforced alongside other tactics, like negative reinforcement or punishment. This method instead focuses on motivation, kindness, and encouragement to shape a child’s behavior for the better.

If you’re a parent dealing with a child who is constantly misbehaving, then you might struggle to find opportunities to compliment good behavior. But don’t give up! All kids are capable of doing well. It’s a matter of catching them when they do something you like, even if it’s small, and giving them kudos. Eventually, they’ll feel motivated to repeat positive actions without looking for praise or reward.

How to Use Positive Reinforcement for Effective Discipline

A mom patting her smiling toddler on the head

1. Pair it with other disciplinary practices.

As mentioned, this method is best practiced alongside other forms of behavioral correction.

Beata Souders of Positive Psychology cites research on positive emotions by Barbara Fredrickson to back this up. “[It] shows that the ratio of 5 to 1 in positive to negative emotions contributes to happiness, [and] a similar ratio of positive reinforcements to other forms of correcting behavior should also yield better results,” she concludes.

With this model in mind, “the use of positive praise, for example, should outweigh instances of criticism 5 to 1 to increase positive affect and well-being, both in children and their parents.”

One concrete example of this is complimenting your child every time they keep quiet and pay attention during Sunday mass. If you notice them being fidgety and distracting others on the same occasion, you can gently point this out and ask them to refrain. They’ll be more likely to listen since you positively acknowledged other aspects of their behavior.

2. Compliment the behavior, not the person.

In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Stanford University Professor Carol Dweck explains how praising effort versus personality encourages growth in children. As Sounders summarizes for Positive Psychology, “[the book] stresses the importance of focusing on the child’s ability to pursue goals and commitment to learning new skills […] over inherent qualities like personality which are […] often difficult to change."

Rather than praising your child for “being smart” when they get good grades, you can praise them for studying and paying attention in class. This acknowledges the hard work they put into school, which can push them to stay consistent and strive for excellence.

3. Involve your child in setting limits and rewards.

A family having a picnic together in a grassy park

Whenever you can, ask for your child’s input on boundaries and rewards. It helps to know what genuinely makes them happy, fulfilled, and motivated. For example, perhaps they’d appreciate more independence when it comes to what they wear. Rather than controlling how they express themselves, set limits together. Let them know that they can wear whatever they want, as long as it follows the dress code wherever they’re going.

Learn more about what they’re interested in and what they need from you as a parent. Maybe they love playing outdoors and eating snacks with you after playtime. If that’s the case, then you can promise to reward them with a fun picnic after a long school week.

4. Encourage them to keep trying even when they fail.

In Jessica Lahey’s book The Gift of Failure, she reminds that failure teaches children to be resourceful, innovative, and brave. “Failure fosters grit, supports autonomy and competence, helps parents learn to back off and see the big picture and even teach them to embrace the opportunity to fail,” quotes Souders for Positive Psychology.

Children need to learn at a young age that it’s okay to fail and that the only way to do better is to keep trying. “Right now, my kids are potty-training and learning how to button their shirts,” shares Sasha, a mom with two kids. “They don’t always succeed, but I’m super encouraging when they at least try.” Supporting your child through hardships instead of criticizing them instills confidence and assures them that they can always get back up.

5. Be patient, especially when it’s hard.

Remember that forming good habits takes time, patience, and perseverance. This is true for adults and especially children. Eventually, they'll learn to do well on their own without the need for praise or rewards, but you have to trust the process.

“You have to realize that, sometimes, they’re just testing limits,” reminds Joanna, a working mom with a mischievous four-year-old. “Consistency from your end is key, which isn’t easy for all parents. But that’s what you have to do. Kids won’t learn to correct themselves from day one. It takes months, or even years, for them to establish a positive pattern.”

6. Offer different rewards depending on the achievement.

A mom wearing an apron and chef’s hat making sandwiches with her daughters surrounded by fresh fruits and vegetables

As briefly touched on in #4, rewards are more effective when they meet a child’s needs or interests. In Positive Psychology, Sounders distinguishes the different types of “reinforcers”: natural, social, token, and tangible. Each one depends on the context of the behavior you’re trying to encourage.

Natural reinforcers are often the direct result of a child’s behavior, like winning a contest after months of dedicated practice. Social reinforcers cover compliments and praise from peers, family, and teachers. Token reinforcers are placeholders for tangible rewards and are often used to encourage continuous effort – like gold stars on a behavior chart. Lastly, tangible reinforcers include new toys, fun activities, or even added privileges, like more TV time.

Some occasions allow for multiple reinforcers, like helping out in the kitchen. If your child is interested in cooking, then you can further encourage them by asking them to make sandwiches for your family’s merienda. If they’re new to the process, have them start with something easy like toasted bread with pre-cut veggies and Lady’s Choice Sandwich Spread.

This experience can boost their self-esteem (natural reinforcer), especially when the sandwiches turn out great. Compliment them on a job well done (social reinforcer) and promise to treat them to ice cream if they can make merienda a few times a week (token reinforcer).

These are just a few tips to get you started on practicing positive reinforcement at home. Give them a try and see what works for you and your kids! Just remember that it isn’t all about tangible rewards and heaping praise on your children. The process is about building confidence and trust and encouraging them to believe in themselves in the long term. With you by their side, your children are sure to get there eventually.

Related Articles

Send your loved ones a Mac-A-Sama Kit this Christmas!

A lot of things have proven to be challenging and uncertain in this” new normal” we are all living in.

Read more »

5 Essential Tips for a Merry Christmas Shopping

Christmas is just around the corner and what better way to prepare for the holiday than start thinking of what to give to your loved ones?

Read more »

Christmas Reunions, Made the Lady's Choice Way

For Filipinos, Christmas reunions are not just for getting together, but also for renewing bonds, reminiscing about happy memories, and creating new ones.

Read more »