Any parent knows that kids often don’t listen and that getting them to follow rules and do as they are asked can feel like an uphill battle. Parents use a variety of approaches to correct inappropriate behavior. Although many rely on punishment, studies have found that praise and positive reinforcement are often more effective.
Differences Between Punishment and Reinforcement
The goal of punishment is to discourage undesirable behavior. Punishment can be positive, such as introducing an object or stimulus to correct behavior, or negative, like taking something away. Assigning extra chores is an example of positive punishment, while not allowing a child to watch TV or taking away a favorite toy would be negative punishment.
Unlike punishment, which aims to discourage unwanted behavior, reinforcement rewards and encourages desirable behavior. Positive reinforcement may take many forms, such as verbal praise, stickers or a trip to the zoo. Negative reinforcement involves taking away something the child doesn’t like, such as a chore.
Why Positive Reinforcement May Work Better Than Punishment
Praise and positive reinforcement are typically more effective than punishment because they help a child learn what is expected. If a particular behavior elicits a positive reaction from adults, the child will be likely to repeat the behavior in the future.
Punishment may demonstrate to a child that the behavior that led to the punishment is unacceptable and may discourage the child from repeating the behavior, but it doesn’t present a clear alternative. Punishment without an explanation of what is expected doesn’t address the underlying issue.
A child may act inappropriately because he or she doesn’t understand the reason for a rule or is confused about what a parent wants or expects. If a child is punished often but doesn’t understand why and doesn’t know what to do instead, the child may feel as though he or she can’t do anything right. The child may become angry and resentful and deliberately act out, or he or she may become withdrawn.
Punishments such as yelling and spanking can instill fear. A child may also learn that those are appropriate ways to react when frustrated and may in turn yell at and hit others, which will just lead to more problems.
How Should You Respond to Inappropriate Behavior?
If your child misbehaves, you should address the issue. Sometimes punishment is an appropriate response, but in general, praise and positive reinforcement may be more beneficial. Clearly explaining the reasons for rules, describing how you want and expect your child to behave, and offering praise and rewards tailored to your child’s personality when you spot good behavior may yield better results in the long run.