It’s a lesson we’re all too familiar with: positive reinforcement. The process is simple: keep rewarding your child for positive actions, and he or she will eventually imbibe these as habits.
Sounds pretty simple, right? But we all know it’s not as easy as it looks. On the opposite end of the spectrum, when our kids misbehave, negative reinforcement isn’t exactly the perfect solution either to shape good behavior. So what works?
In an interview with NPR, parenting educator and journalist Katherine Reynolds Lewis cautions parents about using rewards in her book The Good News About Bad Behavior and talks about a different approach to promote obedience.
Lewis echoes the amount of research supporting the idea that the more people reward children or adults for a particular behavior, this behavior becomes less desirable in the long run. Studies show that when children start to expect a reward, they become less motivated to perform the same action.
“If the child is coming up with, ‘Oh, I’d really like to do this,’ and it stems from his intrinsic interests and he’s more in charge of it, then it becomes less of a bribe and more of a way that he’s structuring his own morning,” says Lewis.
In 2016, Psychology Today reported a study on positive reinforcement. During a game, 48 three-year-olds were given marbles while a puppet would only receive one. Some kids proactively handed out one marble to the puppet, which at times would say, “I only got one marble,” “I want to have as many marbles as you,” or “Will you give me one?”
Whenever a child would give a marble, he or she would at times be praised by the puppet or offered a reward. When a similar test was conducted with the same kids, later on, the results were surprising. The same kids who gave extra marbles to the puppet shared less. It just shows that being praised or receiving material rewards no longer appealed to them, even if they grasped the concepts of empathy and fairness.
“When the reward was absent, so was fairness,” shared author Garth Sundem.
As evidenced by this experiment, rewards stop working at some point. For a while, you may get your child to tie his shoelaces, brush his teeth or get ready for school faster, but eventually, the process may get dull and tiring for them. “At some point, the kid says, ‘I don’t care about your reward. I’m going to do what I want.’ And then we have no tools,” Lewis explains.
Instead of rewarding positive behavior, Lewis encourages parents to use strategies that build on mutual respect and a shared desire to get through the day smoothly.