The Basics of Positive Reinforcement in Child Rearing


Parenthood isn’t always sunshine and laughter. Part of parenthood is instilling manners and discipline in your children so they know which behaviours aren’t acceptable. Not even the most angelic child can be expected to be on their best behaviour 100% of the time, so as a parent, you need to familiarise yourself with what you should and shouldn’t do when your child acts up.

Positivity may be the last thing on your mind when your child drops down and starts throwing a tantrum in public, but studies show that positive reinforcement is one of the most effective ways you can encourage your child to do good and discourage misbehaviour.

What is positive reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement is a behaviour modification technique that uses rewards to encourage desirable behaviour. Rewards can be in the form of material objects like new toys or displays of praise and affection like applause or hugs. This is in contrast with negative reinforcement, where bad behaviours are discouraged through punishment like yelling or spanking. However, child development experts believe that negative reinforcement damages the child’s relationship with the parent and causes severe psychological issues.

The benefits of positive reinforcement

  • Better character development. Research shows that rewards are better motivators than punishment, so children who grow up on positive reinforcement demonstrate a desire to exceed expectations, while those who were raised with negative reinforcement only do the bare minimum to avoid being punished. Positive reinforcement also helps children embrace their accomplishments, which contributes to their self-esteem and overall mental and emotional health. Negative reinforcement, however, instils a sense of shame and self-hatred in children, which could lead to insecurity or depression.
  • Improved familial relationship. Children who are raised in an environment of fear and punishment develop resentment for their parents and grow to be better at hiding their misbehaviour instead of growing out of it. Meanwhile, a positive environment encourages a child to be more open and trusting towards their parents.
  • It makes you feel like a better parent. We always feel guilty and anxious after punishing our child, but through positive reinforcement, we can manage our children’s behaviour without worrying about damaging our relationship with them. It also helps us manage our temper and learn to be more patient.

How to implement positive reinforcement

Anytime your child does something good like doing a chore without being asked or showing good manners, offer praise immediately so they associate that behaviour with a positive response. For every major achievement like good grades, you can offer bigger rewards like a Playmobil Princess or the toy car they’ve been wanting. Other ways of expressing positive reinforcement are:

  • Displays of affection (hugs or kisses)
  • Smaller rewards (“good job” stickers or stamps)
  • Quality time (bedtime stories or watching a movie together)
  • The power to choose (letting them pick what to have for dinner or what to have in their lunch box tomorrow)

When they’re misbehaving, ignore them or calmly revoke privileges like screen time or playtime. Never yell or resort to violence. If you’re irritated, leave the room or calm yourself down to avoid taking it out on your child. When you’re in a more level-headed state, you can communicate with your child calmly about what they did and why it was wrong. This leads to a healthier dynamic and will teach your child better than any physical punishment.

Does positive reinforcement have any disadvantages?

Some critics of positive reinforcement claim that it is no different from bribing and teaching our children to only do things because they expect to be rewarded. However, this is untrue. Bribing is done before the act is accomplished, while rewarding is done after the act has occurred out of the child’s own free will. Those who claim that this will turn kids into adults constantly seeking validation for their actions ignore that people who seek validation in others do so because they lack self-confidence. Positive reinforcement creates an environment where children are more self-assured. Additionally, positive reinforcement is meant to be used during a child’s developmental years, and the point of it is to serve as an easy way to teach them what is right and wrong. It’s not meant to continue for the rest of their life. Once your child is older and you notice the bad behaviours decrease, you can dial back on the positive reinforcement. Of course, you can still offer rewards for major achievements in school.

Everyone has their approach to parenting, and even among experts, there's no consensus on a method that works for every child. What you can do is try different approaches and see which is best for you and your kids. Positive reinforcement requires extreme patience from the parent, but if the outcome is a healthier child and a stronger relationship with them, it may be worth trying.