A few years ago, my three-year-old son spent a calm hour in the afternoon with his crayons, colouring up a storm on paper. He then showed me his masterpiece, to which I smiled. After a minute of silence, he leaned in and with all the earnestness he could muster, asked me softly, “Good job?” He wasn’t speaking much then, so to hear him repeat the two words I often used on him, was quite fascinating. Even then, he understood the value of verbal acknowledgement, including how it made him feel when he received it. Since then, I’ve consistently tried to offer positive reinforcement every time he did something right, or every time I wanted to modify his behaviour. Whether it was eating his vegetables, putting his toys away or colouring a rainbow. Over time, my son’s behaviour changed. From the tantrum-throwing toddler to a disciplined seven-year-old who looks after himself, he’s come a long way.
All it took was positive reinforcement
A few simple words of encouragement make a world of difference to our children. It boosts their confidence and helps them make better decisions. As adults, it is common to forget to forget that our kids are brand new people. They are still struggling to learn the rules and regulations of life we already know through years of experience. Your job is to raise them right, give them the training and discipline they need. The more positive you are with your kids, the better they respond. Often, when disciplining our children, we choose the path of negative reinforcement. That is, we shout, we scold, or we tell them to ‘stop at once’. It often leads to the child fighting back or throwing angry fits. If you want your child to thrive when overcoming obstacles, or learn socially-acceptable behaviour, what helps them is positive encouragement.
Positive versus negative reinforcement
In research conducted on over 3,000 families, it was observed children who were harshly disciplined (including spanking) were more likely to be aggressive. In contrast, those who were raised with warmth and encouragement showed signs of ‘social competence”. It does indicate that loving support is essential for a child’s development. Some parents use harsh words (may be out of exasperation or frustration), thinking it will de-motivate a child from stubborn behavior or a tantrum. Or believe that spanking or scolding is suitable disciplinary measures. They aren’t, especially when that’s the only model used. These negative reinforcement techniques don’t work and only cause resentment to fester in the child, or create a deep-seated inferiority complex. A child needs positive communication to thrive.
Say, there is an instance when your child tears up newspapers and leaves the scraps on the floor. Don’t immediately move to scoldings and punishments. Instead, open up a dialogue and discuss the problem warmly and lovingly. You can start with, “You’ve seemed to have made a mess. What should we do?” Your child might volunteer to clean up himself or wait for you to suggest it. In that case, you can ask if he would be willing to tidy, as it’s the right thing to do. As he is tidying up, offer words of encouragement to indicate he is doing the task properly. “Well done with the cleaning up!”, “Almost tidy!” “The floor looks sparkling now!”, this kind of positive language will help your child immensely.
It’s not the same as bribing, though
“Stop crying, and I’ll give you chocolate!”
“If you finish your homework quickly, you can watch TV!”
We’ve all heard desperate parents beg and bribe their kids when they need them to act a particular way. It’s effective at that moment, but not in the long run. Your kids will adapt their behaviour to expect a reward every time they perform a routine task. You can’t keep this up realistically (imagine having to bribe a 21-year-old to go for a job interview!), and you’re sending your kid the wrong message. Your child needs to learn that doing the right thing is its reward.
But note: positive reinforcement takes time. You won’t see effects in a day. But if every day, you actively acknowledge your child for every attempted or accomplished task, over a period of time, you will notice a glowing change in your little one. They will also change the way they interact with their friends and learn to foster compassion and positivity.
Nor is it empty praise
Positive reinforcement is not the same as merely complimenting your child all the time to avoid friction or conflict. There is a nuanced difference. Praising your child for no particular reason will give rise to conceit and arrogance. What you need to do is use words of encouragement and appreciation to direct your child into bettering himself. It’s to show children that actions have consequences. And positive words can lead to a positive outcome.
So how to use positive encouragement every day?
#1: Verbal praise
You can start doing this from toddlerhood itself. Toddlers love praise. And if you use it effectively, you’ll notice a difference. From the moment your kid wakes up to the time he goes to bed, actively acknowledge the little deeds he does. Whether it’s getting ready by himself, drinking a glass of milk, or brushing his teeth. “Good job”, “Well done!” “You’ve done well by picking up your plate after breakfast and putting it in the kitchen.”… these words will positively affect your child. Every time you see an independent action, encourage your child to make it a habit by acknowledging it. To add on to this, speak positively with your other family members as well. It ensures your child grows up in a positive environment and imbibes this quality into his personality. It’s basic human behaviour, after all. We all love words of appreciation, and it motivates us to do better. Your child is no different.
Non-verbal cues like high fives, thumbs up and hugging also help drive the point across. But you have to be consistent. Throwing a good word now and then won’t have the same impact.
Even when your child is unable to successfully carry out an activity, like tying his shoelaces, or trying to throw a basketball into a hoop, you can offer words of support. “You did your best. I’m proud of you.” or, “Let’s try it again?.” There are many menial tasks that take time for your child to pick up. Like combing his hair or tying his shoelaces, if your child is struggling, you can comfort him with soft, warm words like, “It’s okay, you’ll learn and do better next time.” A dejected child hears these words and immediately perks up and learns that losing isn’t the end of the world. It lifts the pressure if a child realises he isn’t disappointing his parents. It could also help decrease the number of temper tantrums that rise out of frustration.
#2 Reward-based actions
It is different from the bribing technique discussed above. Here you don’t divulge about the reward before your child completes a task. But any bout of good behaviour can be occasionally rewarded through actions. Like, if your child helps tidy up, or cleans up a mess, you can first verbally thank him, and then later visit a park or play his favourite board game with him. Don’t verbally acknowledge the action as a reward. Let your child realise on his own when he exhibits good behaviour, good things can happen.
If you have a child who is stubborn and resistant to change, you could initiate a chart-based reward system. Put up a chart that is filled with little jobs, tasks, and actions your child is expected to take and for every accomplishment, he gets a sticker. A daily or weekly chart filled with stickers make a child feel quite proud of himself. The tasks can include not only chores and activities but also any behavioural modifications you hope to bring about. Like, a star sticker for ‘speaking politely to others’, ‘helping grandparents’, ‘reading a book’, etc.
My 7-year-old son now uses words of loving encouragement when he sees his 3-year-old sister attempt a task. That is the power of positive reinforcement. It’s a disciplinary tactic that takes time to work, but slowly and surely, you will notice a change in your children.