Importance of understanding how children respond to rewards and punishments

 It was the American Behavioural psychologist B.F. Skinner who brought to the notice of the world the effect of both positive and negative reinforcement in children. Even though parents knew that children do respond to rewards and punishments, the consequences and results were not clear. It took Skinner’s research and Theory of Operant Conditioning to make it evident how children show immediate reaction to familiar stimulus. 

Power of postive reinforcement 

It is very important to know the power of reinforcement in creating behavioural patterns in children. Often children exhibit a good behaviour, like putting away the toys neatly after playing with them. If the caretaker present will encourage and reinforce the behaviour, there is very high chance of the behaviour being repeated. This particular behaviour gets strengthened. On the other hand, if there is no reinforcement, the behaviour tends to die out or gets extinguished in due time. 

Using positive reinforcement with your child will 

  • Enhance personal responsibility 
  • Boosts self-esteem and builds confidence
  • Stimulates intrinsic motivation

Do not wait to praise your child since it has observed that positive reinforcement is highly effective when used right after the behaviour. The larger the time gap between the behaviour and reinforcement, the weaker will be the effect. 

Positive reinforcement is easily available for parent to give out to their children. Giving a thumbs up, hugging, shooting a loving smile, patting back, giving high-five or praising can have quite a good effect. Occasionally, you can show your appreciation with a gift as well. 

Effects Of Punishment

Parents have often taken refuge in punishments of various forms to stop a child from doing what they don't want the child to do or getting what they desire done by the child. They try to instil fear in the child by using a painful or unpleasant method to stop him/her. 

The punishments can be either corporal/physical, verbal, emotional, withholding of rewards or luxuries or penalties. 

Physical punishment like spanking or hitting the child, will never bring in desired results. At most, the child may pretend to have learned a lesson to avoid being punished. The same goes with verbal abuse. Moreover, they steal the child’s self-esteem. 

Withholding of rewards may actually get the job done from the child without causing any further damage. Be firm with the consequence and do not give in if you desire the child to learn. 

For e.g.: Tell your child beforehand, that he will be allowed to watch his favourite Cartoon, if gets the homework done. If the homework is not done, no TV show. See to it that there is ample time for the child to finish the homework before the show begins. 

Holding back luxuries can help building discipline without causing much harm to the child. Simple penalties like asking your child to clean up the spill they caused, or help you set back things right after they have messed around can teach them responsibility as well. 

Punishments are dangerous and should be handled with great care. There is a very thin line dividing the learning from emotional scarring that can take place. 

Negative Reinforcement

Many people confuse negative reinforcement with punishment. Though both negative reinforcement and punishment rely on aversive stimuli (something a child wants to avoid), they differ in terms of consequences. 

With negative reinforcement, the desired behaviour is increased; whereas with punishment, we see decrease in an unwanted behaviour. 

For e.g.: Punishment is sending the child to a corner for time-out for being very loud and noisy. As a result the child will stop the behaviour to avoid punishment.

Negative Reinforcement is taking the child off from timeout for being quiet and behaving good. Since the unpleasantness of being in timeout was removed due to being quiet and showing good behaviour, the child will be encouraged to show such behaviour more often in future. 

When the child refuses to eat dinner, you can say that he/she can leave table after finishing one of dishes served. The temptation of getting away from the table will encourage the child to eat at least one dish served. You can also reduce quantity for a positive outcome. Here the unpleasantness for the child is sitting there at the dining table to eat something he/she does not want to eat. So to get away from there, the child will eat something. 

Negative reinforcement is found to be an effective way to strengthen the desired behaviour, especially in children who exhibit stubbornness. Unfortunately, Negative reinforcement isn't going to be appropriate in every situation or bring in the desired result all the time.