Some days, it feels like all we do as parents is discipline our children, but do we understand what discipline really means? The goal of disciplining children is not to punish them for bad behavior. Rather, discipline is a tool to get the behavior we want. Ultimately, children who receive discipline become disciplined in the way they think, act and speak. Discipline is a good thing, so long as it’s not always about punishment.
Throughout the 1930s and into the 1950s, psychologist B.F. Skinner studied operant conditioning, or how we use discipline to gain a desired behavior. Through decades of research, Skinner identified effective ways to instill discipline in children. By understanding his three methods, we learn how to get better behavior from our kids.
When many of us think discipline, our minds immediately go to punishment. The goal of punishment is to stop a behavior such as hitting, biting, yelling or back talking. Punishment is also often reactionary, meaning it happens after a child has already done something bad. Positive punishment is when a parent adds something, such as spanking or extra chores, in response to a child’s bad behavior. Negative punishment is taking something away, which can include limiting screen time or grounding.
Punishment certainly has its place in child rearing, but it’s not the most effective method of discipline. It’s much more difficult to stop a behavior than to prevent a bad behavior in the first place. Human brains prefer seeking rewards over avoiding punishment, which means that punishment has natural limitations.
When we reinforce a behavior, we try to get a desired behavior to happen more often. As parents, we want to reinforce things such as listening, obedience, compassion and cooperation. We use negative reinforcement by taking away something bad when our child does something right. For example, extending a curfew after a teenager proves trustworthy is negative reinforcement. Another example is when you stop nagging your child to clean up after he finally does his chores.
Negative reinforcement is a huge step in the right direction, but it still doesn’t tap into our children’s full potential to work for a reward. It also takes a lot of restrictions before you get to the good stuff, which can put a strain on your relationship with your kids.
The gold standard of operational learning is positive reinforcement. Using positive reinforcement makes our homes happier and our children more successful. Positive reinforcement is when you add something desirable following good behavior, such as congratulating your kid for a job well done or giving treats.
Kids respond very well to positive reinforcement, largely because they want our approval. When we set up systems of positive reinforcement, it gives our kids ownership in their discipline process. This sense of involvement develops the right type of self-esteem as opposed to shallow self-esteem that comes from empty praise. Instead of relying on fault-finding, coercion, or intimidation, positive reinforcement lets you tell your kids what you love about them in specific and meaningful ways, and that’s key to building loving relationships.
If you’re looking to add more positive reinforcement in your home, start with a token system. A token system is any physical representation of good deeds -- such as stickers, marbles or fluff balls -- that kids earn to exchange for rewards. The rewards can range from simple things like picking a meal to special days out or a new toy. Pick what works for your family and your children’s ages. As an added bonus, token systems also teach kids long-term goal planning and self-direction, important skills for successful adulthood. Also, remember that the easiest form of positive reinforcement is specific and meaningful praise. Tell your kids when they do something right.
Disciplining is an empowering process for both children and parents when done correctly. If you find yourself using punishment too often, think about ways to even out the balance. It won’t take long until your children are behaving the way you’ve always dreamed.
(Heather Hale is a fourth-generation Montanan, mom to three crazy boys, and wife to one amazing husband. She writes about passionate parenthood at moderatelycrunchy.com.)