Rewarding children for behaving appropriately is an effective method of discipline referred to as positive reinforcement. The theory behind positive reinforcement is that by selectively ignoring undesirable behavior and immediately rewarding desired behavior, the child will be encouraged to repeat the preferred behavior.
This reward system method is most effective with small children. They have short attention spans and are highly suggestive and this technique of positive recognition and reward will result in repeated efforts to please and to exhibit positive behaviors. Ultimately, the child will continue to respond well to this form of behavior modification throughout his formative years and occasions for negative forms of discipline will be mitigated.
The components of this form of reward system are as follows:
Once the parent identifies the behavior he would like to reinforce in the child, praise and compliments are directed toward displays of that particular activity. If the parent wants the child to develop patience, he would selectively ignore any whining or begging and when the child is “caught” being patient in regard to his needs, the parent will respond with praise directed at the child’s positive behavior. For example: The parent would comment, “I am happy with how nicely you waited for us to finish our conversation. You are becoming quite grown up.”
Compliments and praise should always be sincere and addressed toward the activity, not the child. To say, “You are a good boy” is vague and meaningless to the child. It suggests that if he is not patient, he is “bad.” If he hears instead, “I am proud of you for picking up your toys,” the child will be proud of himself and apt to repeat the behavior that garnered him praise.
Setting up an interactive chart to document positive behavior works well with preschoolers. Explain what behavior is expected and the system of the reward. The child will be motivated to see his chart fill up with stars and stickers. Place the chart in a visible spot and allow the child to overhear you brag of his accomplishment to the other parent and extended family and friends. Keep the system simple and immediate. Children this age do not have the attention span or thought process for complicated reward systems. They can understand, “If you pick up your toys, you will earn a sticker for your chart.”
Vary the reward
To keep the child’s interest over time, vary the method of reward. On one occasion you might declare, “Good job.” On another you might give a thumbs up or ask for a high five when observing the positive behavior. Yet another time, you could say, “You did so well, let’s get you a cookie.” Children even like when you write little notes of praise commending their good behavior.
Obviously, you will not want to get in the habit of rewarding the child with concrete items, in order to veer away from motivation translating into “treat.” On occasion, however, as the child matures and can understand goals, you can incorporate concrete rewards, such as, “If you keep your room tidy all week, on Saturday we will go to the store and pick out a new action figure for your collection.” This enables the child to learn to set goals and to work toward them.
Children who grow up experiencing the positive reinforcement form of discipline with a built in reward component generally display high self esteem. They are accustomed to being valued and appreciated and acquire a high level of self motivation.
Parents who practice positive reinforcement also display a high degree of self esteem. The low key, non-confrontational way of modifying behavior and instilling values allows the parents to feel good about themselves in a way that negative, reactionary discipline methods cannot achieve.
There is a school of thought that children will be “spoiled” by too much reward and praise, and proponents of that theory look with a jaundiced eye upon positive reinforcement as a method of discipline.
This begs the question: Is it possible to “spoil” children with appropriate praise, compliments and unconditional love? Or are we setting the stage for a future society of well adjusted adults with good self esteem whose behavior aligns with a high level of morals and values.