A Parent’s Primer: The Power of Rewards

Close up of crying childLast month, we talked about how figuring out why someone is doing something is key to changing his or her behaviors. We learned that most behaviors are motivated by getting something, getting away from or stopping something, feeling good, or are simply automatic (a reflex, for example).

In order to change behaviors, we must learn about reinforcement, not merely the functions of the behaviors.

Case Example
Imagine this scene, one that is played out in countless grocery stores every day around the world. Picture, if you will, a harried mother trying to get the shopping for the house completed. She is tired and in a rush to get home. With her is her young son. In the checkout line, as Mom tries to load the groceries on the little conveyor belt, her child asks for a candy bar (located conveniently an arm’s reach away, at child eye level). Mom, being a kind and benevolent mom, says, “No, we’re going home and having dinner. You don’t need a candy bar right now.” Her son, being like most children of his age, doesn’t like this state of affairs. In response to the denial of sucrose refreshment, he starts wailing at the top of his lungs, “PLEEAAAASEE! I WANNA CANDY! I WANNA CANDY! I WANNA CANDY!”

Other store patrons stare at the impending debacle. Mom feels embarrassed and more than a little ticked off. She still has to get the groceries home, get them unpacked, and make dinner. Dealing with a tantrum is the last thing she wants to do. At first she tries to calmly explain to her child that dinner will be soon, but the child screams louder. Then she commands him to cease his tantrum. That works about as well as can be expected (not at all). Finally, Mom gives in and buys her little angel the candy bar, at which point he immediately ceases his caterwauling.

Can you name all the reinforcement that occurred in the above example? What do you think will happen next time Mom brings her son to the grocery store?

What Is Reinforcement?
The technical definition of reinforcement is anything that occurs after a behavior that increases the chances of that behavior occurring again. Simply put, when your child does something (a behavior) and you do something immediately afterward, if your child repeats the behavior, whatever you did was a reinforcer.

This idea is key to behavior change. We want to provide rich and powerful reinforcement for the behaviors we wish to see (start behaviors) and avoid reinforcement for the behaviors we do not wish to see (stop behaviors). This interaction is at the heart of everything we wish to accomplish.

Important points:

  • Reinforcement occurs only if you see the behavior again. You might feel you are rewarding your child, but if the reward does not result in increased frequency, intensity, or other improvement in the behavior, then the reward is not reinforcing.
  • Reinforcement can be anything. It doesn’t have to be pleasant, either. For example, a person who likes fighting might enjoy when he is in a fight and find getting hit or yelled at reinforcing.
  • Reinforcement always increases behaviors. Anything that decreases the chances of seeing a behavior is called a punisher.

The bottom line? Reward your kids when they do what you want them to do and they will do those things more. If you simultaneously remove the rewards from the behaviors you want to see less of, you will see less of those behaviors.

Isn’t this just bribery, you may ask? Nope. There are some key differences between bribery and reinforcement. Bribery is typically something (often money) given to someone in advance of behavior. It is generally given to get a person to do something unethical or illegal. Reinforcement always occurs after a behavior, and we are not using it to get our children to do anything unethical or illegal (hopefully!).

You might also ask: Why should I be rewarding my kid for doing what he is supposed to do? Shouldn’t he just do it? In a perfect world, yes, your child would do what he or she is supposed to do. However, in the real world, children are compelled by the “drive-your-parents-nuts accord” to not always follow directions. If we, as parents, want to keep our sanity, it behooves us to use all the tools at our disposal to encourage and reward our children, and ultimately to teach them what to do and when to do it.

Types of Reinforcement

  • Positive: This is the most common type. It is something that is added to the situation (money, candy, praise). Basically, if you give your child something because he did something good, that’s positive reinforcement. In the case example, the mother positively reinforced her child’s checkout-line tantrum behavior by buying him the candy.
  • Negative: This not punishment. (That decreases behaviors.) It is the removal of something. In the case example, the child negatively reinforced his mother’s candy-buying behavior by ceasing his tantrum when she gave in and bought it.

Classes of Reinforcers

  • Primary: These are typically those things that all people need—food, air, companionship, etc.—and are often tied to basic survival. These are good because almost everybody will respond to them. However, they suffer from the “too-much-of-a-good-thing” effect, also known as satiety. When you’ve had enough of something, it loses its reinforcing qualities.
  • Secondary: These are learned reinforcers. Typically paired in some way with primary reinforcement, these can be anything. Money is perhaps one of the most prevalent secondary reinforcers in the world. It always amazes me what people will do for colored bits of paper.

Putting This Information to Use

Follow these simple steps:

  1. Ask yourself: Is this a start behavior or a stop behavior? (Do you want to see this more or less?)
  2. Ask yourself: What is the function of the behavior?
  3. For stop behaviors, the answer to question No. 3 will tell you what you need to decrease or eliminate from the situation to make the behavior go away. Do that.
  4. For start behaviors, the answer to question No. 3 will tell you what you need to do to get the person to do the behavior more (or better).

As with all things simple, there is a lot more to look at, but it ultimately comes down to these four points. (We will discuss more about reinforcement and how to set it up and deliver it in future articles.)

What’s the Best Reinforcer?
The best reinforcer is the one that works in a given situation. However, my preference is praise. I will cover praise in more detail in a future article, but here is why I like it as a reinforcer: Just about everybody responds to praise. The more you praise someone, the more he or she likes you. The more he or she likes you, the more he or she will respond to you. Praise is free. It takes up no space. People rarely get tired of it. It pairs well with every other kind of reinforcer (thus making the praise and the other reinforcer more effective). In your experiments with reinforcement, try adding a little praise to your efforts and see how it enhances things.

I hope this information helps make your day-to-day challenges less challenging. Please comment below, ask questions, or make suggestions. Let me know about creative ways you have found to reinforce your children (or anyone else, for that matter). Hang in there, parents!

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • martine

    December 4th, 2012 at 3:57 PM

    As long as you find something that works, I say go for it.

    I too like using praise as a foundation for a good reward system in the house too, but hey, sometimes even I am not above bribes with candy! ;)

  • TED

    December 5th, 2012 at 3:44 AM

    In my house my wife and I try to find that perfect balance between both positive and negative reinforcement, but I always want to lean more toward the negative and she is the opposite. I want to teach the kids a lesson, while she wants to hihlight the jobs well done. I see both sides, but I have always felt strongly that the more you reinforce that bad behavior is indeed bad and not appropriate then they will stop exhibiting that behavior more quickly. I was raised in a home where spanking was the norm so this to me feels a lot kinder and more gentle, but to my wife she throws a fit any time I even suggest it. I am still of the mindset though that there needs to be this balance to have it all work in sync.

  • Erik

    December 5th, 2012 at 9:39 AM

    @TED — Thank you for your comment. A couple of things: 1) don’t confuse negative reinforcement with punishment. reinforcement (positive or negative) serves to increase the chance of seeing a behavior again in the future. Punishment serves to decrease the chnaces of seeing a behavior again.

    Punishers tend to work more quickly than rienforcers, however they have limitations. First, there tends to be longer term negative effects on the relationship between the child and parents (especially if punishments start to escalate). Also, behaviors tend to return when the threat of punishment is not there. Finally, punishment really teaches what not to do…as opposed to what to do. So, I might learn not to hit…but what do I do instead?

    Finally, when dealing wiht children with special needs, you are often dealing with impaired executive funcitoning and decision making ability. The child mat not be able to learn what not to do via punishmnet unless there is a targetted effort toteach and reinforce acceptable alternative behaviors.

    for my money, you tend to get more mileage by not reinforceing “stop” behaviors and focusing on reinforcement for “start” behaviorsw in the long run.

  • Erik

    December 5th, 2012 at 9:41 AM

    @martine — Exactly, use all the tools at your disposal. However, there is a difference between bribery and reinforcement. Bribery is paymnet (usually in advance) to get something to do something illegal or immoral. reinforcement is simnply anything that increases the chance of doing a behavior.
    I also agree that praise is perhaps the most powerful reinforcer out there (and it pairs well with any other motivator you want to use).

  • cindy

    December 5th, 2012 at 11:23 PM

    while goal setting and rewarding your child for achieving the same is a food idea,a reward from throwing tantrums is not good at all.i remember when my daughter was little she realized that if she threw enough tantrums then any of her wants would be fulfilled. I saw this in her and decided to be Adament from then on. Gradually she changed and I think all children are like that. If you yield to them they will take it as something that always works and they will repeat endless times.

    So being assertive while still loving would be a good way to mend your child.

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