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Positive Reinforcement Works

"If a child lives with approval, he learns to live with himself."
Dorothy Law Nolte

After a long day at the office, with more work facing you at home, the last thing you might feel like doing is being positive. But it is crucial that, even during conversations aimed at correcting behavior, you keep your tone positive.

What is positive communication?

Positive communication is a tool to reinforce good behavior and eliminate bad behavior; it builds self-esteem and inspires confidence in children. And it's easy — once you get the hang of it! Children's feelings of esteem are very highly influenced by their interaction and relationship with their parents. All children need to feel loved and accepted, and you can communicate those feelings to your children by the way you speak.

Once you develop the habit of consistent positive reinforcement at home, you'll see that communicating is easier, and you will also be helping your son or daughter learn to communicate with the outside world. By the time they are in elementary school, kids need the self-esteem boost gained when positive reinforcement is in practice.

Rules of the road

  • Face your child and maintain eye contact.
  • Always allow your child to finish talking and complete his statements.
  • "Labeling is disabling" — label the behavior instead of the child. Incorrect: "Billy, you are a bad boy." Correct: "Billy, it is irresponsible to leave your toys all over the place."
  • Help your child learn to talk positively.
  • Try to start your statements with a reinforcer, such as, "Sara, you are a very bright girl; now, let's talk about the best way to get your homework finished." People are more responsive to positive statements, but make sure your compliments are truthful. Children, as well as adults, will see through false flattery.

Correcting behavior

In the book Meta-Emotion: How Families Communicate Emotionally, by John M. Gottman, Lynn Fainsilber Katz, and Carole Hooven, the authors discuss educator and psychologist Dr. Haim Ginott's basic plan for positive reinforcement. The four basic parts are:

  1. Recognize and acknowledge the child's wish.
  2. State the limit calmly and clearly.
  3. Point out ways that her wish may be partially fulfilled.
  4. Help the child express the resentment that arises when limits are imposed. "I know you would like to watch the TV show now, but we will tape it and you can watch it after your homework."

by Brenda L. Gargus

Rewarding vs. bribing
Reinforcers vary from child to child. You should be aware of the reinforcers that your child values, and use them. Extra TV time, phone privileges, a Saturday at the mall — most kids enjoy these things. Use rewards when you feel your child has finished a difficult task, such as making the honor roll at school, getting a B (or even a C+) on a difficult test, or not arguing with her brother for two weeks. Don't confuse rewarding with bribing! You should not offer extra treats, money, or gifts for tasks you expect your child to do on a daily basis. Instead, use reinforcers and positive communication — to encourage your child to use the same form of communication with others.

Try this at Home
Here are some time-tested hints for positive communication with your child.

  • Be firm and consistent.
  • Try not to force petty, time-consuming decisions, such as "Which color toothbrush do you want?"
  • Give your child chores when she's young. Chores build self-discipline and a sense of responsibility, but remember that she may need many calm reminders to complete them.
  • Accept the fact that children need to be told things over and over. If you have to repeat a direction, say it as if it were the first time.
  • A short list of chores is better than a long, possibly confusing or frustating list. In general, lists (in either words or pictures) are better than simply telling your child what to do, because a list addresses two learning styles — auditory and visual — and a list lets your child be in control by checking off each task as he completes it.
  • Remember that some kids do not process multiple requests quickly or accurately. Get your child's attention first, and never shout from one room to the other.
  • Speak slowly; it will help your child absorb more of what you are saying.
  • If your child has a learning disability, she may be disorganized, and may have trouble relating an event in proper sequence. Keep a calm, uncritical, and non-irritable manner when explaining something to your child.

James Baldwin once said, "Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them." By being positive with your child and reinforcing the behavior you want repeated, you give her the blueprint for interacting with people outside of your home.