As discussed in a previous blog post “Operant Conditioning: Changing Behavior,” positive reinforcement is a method to increase the likelihood that a behavior will occur again in the future. Positive reinforcement strengthens behavior through the addition of something desirable to the environment.
In that post, we described how getting an A on an exam would positively reinforce studying for that exam. Likewise, giving a child $10 for every book he reads would also be an example of positive reinforcement.
Praise is another form of positive reinforcement. If you see your child studying hard and you say, “I like the way you’re studying. It looks like you are giving it your all,” that will increase the likelihood that your child studies again in the future.
On it’s face, positive reinforcement seems straightforward and even fun. You do something good and you get a reward. This is why positive reinforcement has gotten a lot of press over the years. The self-esteem movement in particular promoted the concept that we should only modify behavior through positive reinforcement. However, despite the popular press, positive reinforcement is often used ineffectively and actually contributes to a lot of problems in child-rearing.
There are several common confusions and pitfalls that occur when trying to positively reinforce a behavior. In this post, I will focus on two:
Positive Reinforcement is often occurring without your explicit awareness.
Positive Reinforcement should only be given when the desired behavior occurs.
Let’s consider statement #1:
1. Positive Reinforcement is often occurring without your explicit awareness.
In all the examples we gave in our initial post, the outcomes seemed obviously linked to the behaviors. Study, get a good grade. Give a speech, get a bad response. Take a pill, feel better. But this isn’t always the case. Consider this: ignore parents, play video games. Those two things don’t seem obviously linked - at least not at first glance. Let’s see how this works…
Let’s say that I ask my child to come downstairs for dinner while he’s playing his video game. 10 minutes later, he’s still upstairs playing. In this case, he is getting positively reinforced for ignoring me. Look at it this way:
Behavior: ignoring parents
Outcome: play video games
It’s certainly not the case that I said “Timmy, if you ignore me you’ll get 10 extra minutes of video game time.” I didn’t explicitly set up any such reinforcement, but it’s happening without my intention - and because Timmy is being reinforced for ignoring me by getting those 10 extra minutes, he’ll be more likely to ignore me the next time I call him.
Let’s consider another example. Let’s say my child is anxious about a test today. He says he’s terrified to go to school, and won’t go. After much deliberation, I can’t convince him to go. He stays at home all day watching his favorite shows and movies. In this case, he is getting positively reinforced for feeling anxious and skipping school. Look at it this way:
Behavior: feel anxious & skip school
Outcome: watch movies and TV shows that I love
Just as in the example above, I never stated “Timmy, if you get really anxious and skip school, you’ll get to watch all your favorite shows and movies.” I didn’t explicitly set up any such reinforcement, but it’s happening anyway.
This point is critical, as many families fall into patterns of reinforcing undesirable behaviors without realizing it.
Now let’s look at statement #2:
2. Positive reinforcement should only be given when the desired behavior occurs.
This means that if I offer to give a child $10 for reading a book, and then he doesn’t read the book, I don’t give him the $10. The desired behavior (reading a book) has not occurred, so the reinforcement shouldn’t occur.
Although this may seem obvious, the self-esteem movement has introduced some confusion about this particular issue because parents sometimes think, “but then my child’s self-esteem will be hurt. If he doesn’t get the $10, he’ll feel bad about himself. He will feel shame and this will be bad for him.” For this reason, many people advocate that we give children reinforcement no matter what. Think “participation award.”
What is usually overlooked when this issue is discussed is that it is not withholding of a reinforcer that leads to shame. Rather, it is the way feedback is communicated to the child that leads to shame. If I say “Timmy, you didn’t get your $10 because you acted like a brat and watched TV instead of reading,” he will be very likely to feel shame. He will also probably feel shame if I say, “You didn’t get the $10 because you acted like the irresponsible child I knew you were. When are you going to grow up?”
In both cases the child feels shame, but that shame has nothing to do with the lack of a reinforcer and everything to do with the way I shared the information. Likewise, if I say, “Timmy, you didn’t get your $10 because you didn’t read the book. You played video games instead. Video games are a lot of fun and I bet most kids would get distracted by them. Your older brother used to spend hours playing video games when he was your age. I think you can do better, though; why don’t we pick a book and see if we can get that $10?” then he likely won’t feel any shame.
As you can see, a reinforcer can be withheld without shaming the child or damaging their self-esteem. So let’s not give reinforcement in the absence of the appropriate behavior. This is a misguided attempt to eliminate shaming a child without addressing the real source of the shame (the communication style).
Additionally, it is worth noting that if you give him the money when he played video games instead of reading, then the behavior you are reinforcing is playing video games. Or, worse yet, if you try to withhold the $10 and then give in to a huge tantrum, you are inadvertently reinforcing tantrums.
What do these two principles about reinforcement tell us about child rearing?
Together, they tell us that parents often inadvertently reinforce behavior that they are trying to get rid of.
Let’s return to the case of a son skipping school and getting to watch TV and movies. By feeling anxious, he gets loads of extra TV and movie time. Even though I didn’t intend to, I’m positively reinforcing him for skipping school and feeling anxious. He’s actually going to be more likely to feel anxious and skip school in the future. In cases like this, I often suggest to families that they not allow any screen time when their child is repeatedly refusing to go school.
Many families are against this suggestion because they worry it will hurt his self-esteem and leave him feeling shamed and guilty. Likewise, they say “I don’t want to use punishments. I only want to use rewards.” They worry that if we take away their phone, we are “punishing the child for being anxious about school.”
If we are removing something desirable from the environment, this is typically thought to be a form of negative punishment. But in this case, screen time shouldn’t have been in the environment to begin with. If the child went to school (as they are supposed to), he wouldn’t have access to screens. Therefore, by giving him screen time when he skips school you’re actually adding something to the environment that shouldn’t be there. This addition of something desirable is an example of positive reinforcement. Removal of the reinforcement isn’t “punishment;” it’s just stopping the unintended reinforcement for skipping school. The confusion occurs because people fail to realize that they were inadvertently reinforcing the skipping school behavior. As such, removal of the reinforcer seems unfair, or even cruel, to them.
Let’s think about it in a slightly different light. Let’s say that you are an attorney who was hired to write a contract for a small business. It’s due Monday at 5pm, but you haven’t done it. At 5pm, you call the company and say, “I didn’t do it. I was busy.” Let’s pretend they are quite understanding and respond by saying, “that’s strange. Don’t expect to be paid. We’ll hire someone else.” Would you call the businesses’ response punishment? Is failing to pay you after you failed to deliver the work a punishment? Certainly not. They are only providing reinforcement when the desired behavior occurs; there is no punishment occurring here. The same applies to kids. If a child doesn’t study or do his chores, it’s not a punishment to withhold reinforcement. It’s simply using reinforcement appropriately.