Raising children is difficult! It is arguably the most important thing most people will do in their lives, and it is a tremendous challenge. While there are extensive, heavily researched theories on child development, they can’t tell you exactly what to do in every situation. And no two children are the same; different kids will respond to the same approaches in different ways. Being a parent is incredibly rewarding, but it can often feel just as overwhelming.
One universally true thing, however, is the need children have for positive reinforcement. Being positive with your child has innumerable benefits to both short term state of mind and long term development. Kids can improve their confidence and self-esteem, learn to be self-reliant, and adopt a growth-oriented mindset.
But what exactly is positive reinforcement? It’s a term we’ve all heard, but it’s often somewhat nebulous and ill-defined. We know it can be confusing but never fear. We’ll break down exactly what positive reinforcement is, why it matters, and how to take advantage of it to help your children grow and fulfill the potential you know they have. Plus, we’ll even provide several specific positive things you can say to your child, along with an explanation of their benefits.
Parenting is a unique challenge. But with a deep understanding of positive reinforcement in your toolbox, it’ll be just a bit more manageable.
What is Positive Reinforcement?
It’s natural when disciplining your children to focus on the things they do wrong. And that is an integral part of their development. Children are exploring and trying to understand their world; they need to know when they do something they shouldn’t.
The issue arises when that is the majority of the feedback they receive. That can cause children to develop negative opinions of themselves, and it can cause them to act out on purpose. Children need attention; if their primary experience receiving attention is when they do things they shouldn’t, that will be their default when they are seeking the attention of a parent.
We’re not discouraging you from letting your child know when they do something wrong; instead, we’re merely emphasizing the importance of letting them know when they do something right. If this hasn’t been your default parenting style, there’s no need to be ashamed. When children do something wrong, it stands out. When they’re behaving the way they should, it’s easy for that to blend into the background.
This approach may take some work on your part. For many of us, it’s not how we were raised ourselves. But we assure you, the payoff can be worth it. Research indicates that the best results come when kids hear five positive comments for every one negative. Before we move forward, though, let’s address some potential concerns.
Am I Going to Spoil My Child?
One of the first things many parents worry about when considering positive reinforcement is “spoiling” their children. If we focus primarily on the positive aspects of their behavior, will that cause them to become unable to handle criticism? Will they think they’re incapable of doing anything wrong, and expect everything to come easy for them for the rest of their lives?
These concerns highlight the difference between positively reinforcing our child’s good behavior and enabling all of their actions. Children risk becoming spoiled when everything they do is praised, or if they are never criticized. That is not what positive reinforcement advocates.
Positive reinforcement isn’t about being positive all the time. It’s about doing so when your child exhibits good behavior, and it’s about balance. When your child does something wrong, tell them. That is not incompatible with positive reinforcement. But also be sure to celebrate them when they do the right thing.
While this may be a common misconception, positive reinforcement isn’t about making your child feel like they’re flawless. It’s about teaching them to desire to do the right thing.
How Does it Relate to Child Development?
Sure, positively reinforcing your child’s behavior makes them feel better in the moment. But does it really tie into child development?
Children are sponges. They are new to the world, and everything they do is part of an unconscious effort to understand their environment and their place in it. As their parent, you are their primary guide through this journey. Your feedback helps them develop a road map to determine the way they act both now and in the future.
When you focus primarily on discouraging bad behavior, that road map becomes populated with things to avoid, but not something to actively seek. Their behavior pattern becomes passive, driven primarily by the desire to avoid punishment, rather than by the desire to do good in the world. Positive reinforcement, on the other hand, fills their road map with tangible things towards which they can strive.
When children do good things, learn new skills, or exhibit good manners, and are rewarded for it, they associate the behavior with positive attention. Over time, they will learn not only what to avoid, but what they should actively be doing instead. And this has a wide array of significant long-term benefits. More on this later.
In Contrast with Punishment
Positive reinforcement does not mean you do not ever discipline your child. Indeed, it is imperative to find a balance of positivity and firmness. But parents often conflate discipline with punishment. While there is plenty of overlap, they are not the same.
Discipline may include some form of punishment (like a timeout, for example), but its primary purpose is teaching the child a lesson, and helping them learn the right thing to do. It is about discouraging negative behavior, but also offering a replacement in its stead. Taking away the negative and providing the child with a positive path forward.
Punishment, on the other hand, is focused entirely on the past negative behavior and offers little benefit. While the downside isn’t always readily apparent, a punishment-oriented approach can foster resentment and rebellion in the long term. Children may become defiant, which prompts more punishment, creating a vicious cycle. Further, children may internalize the message of the punishment and think of themselves as a bad person.
Many of us were raised through a punishment-oriented approach ourselves, which can make it challenging to take a different approach when we become parents. But while we turned out okay, we also recall the friction and defiance that punishment-oriented approach caused.
The Benefits of Positive Reinforcement
When desired behavior is reinforced through positive parental attention, that helps children learn how to act. But the benefits don’t stop there. Positive parenting can also lead to several crucial characteristics that can help your child thrive both now and throughout their lives.
Confidence and Self Esteem
As we’ve said repeatedly, children are finding their way in the world. Interactions with authority figures play a major role in the way they feel about themselves. And there is no authority figure held in higher esteem than the parent of a young child (it may not always feel that way when they’re throwing a tantrum, but it’s true).
When children notice that negative behavior always draws attention, while other behavior is overlooked, that doesn’t just teach them that acting out is the way to get attention from parents. It also may cause negative attention to define their self-perception. That can tell them that they are prone to failure and not worthy of praise. Of course, that’s not how you see them! But they only know that if you tell them.
When you positively reinforce desired behavior, on the other hand, that teaches them that they have strengths and are capable of succeeding in the world. That helps cultivate their confidence and self-belief.
When children hear positive things about themselves (from the person they trust more than anyone else in the world), they understand that they have value and worth. And confidence isn’t just about feeling good about yourself. It also helps you to develop valuable, life-long skills, like self-reliance and self-sufficiency.
If a child doesn’t believe they are strong and capable, they won’t attempt to do anything themselves, as they instinctively think they won’t succeed. Instilling self-confidence through praise and positive reinforcement helps them believe that they are capable of growth, and can accomplish things based on their own merit.
That will cause kids to explore more and be more willing to try new things and develop new skills. Self-sufficient kids are more adventurous and curious. But they are also more responsible. Positive reinforcement can help kids take ownership of their responsibilities. When chores are associated with positive parental interactions, rather than fighting and nagging, kids become more likely to do the tasks of their own volition.
And this can create benefits that last a lifetime. Self-sufficiency is an incredibly valuable life tool. Self-sufficient people tend to be much more stable and feel far more in control of their lives. When you’ve grown up choosing to take ownership of what you’re responsible for, that can carry over to adulthood.
All of this comes from positive interaction with your children when they do what they’re supposed to do. Further, children may become more committed to their interests if you also develop an interest in them. If you encourage their commitment to an activity, they’ll likely become all the more motivated.
Instilling Growth Mindset
Arguably the most important characteristic that can be associated with positive reinforcement is your child developing a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset. Before we discuss the connection between a growth mindset and positive reinforcement, let’s talk first about what exactly that means.
Someone with a fixed mindset believe that their abilities, skills, and intelligence are static. They are bestowed with a set of immutable traits, and we have to do the best we can with them. That has several significant drawbacks.
People with fixed mindsets respond poorly to criticism. Even constructive criticism will be viewed as a direct, personal attack. If your traits are all immutable, criticism of your actions is conflated with criticism of you as a person.
Further, people with a fixed mindset feel as though they are under constant pressure to prove themselves. Intelligence, character, and personality are all highly valued by society. If you only have a set amount, you’ll need to demonstrate how much you have as often as you can—by putting others down, to prove yourself better than them. That breeds both conflicts with others and insecurity within yourself.
A fixed mindset also leads to low frustration tolerance and a propensity for giving up easily. If you are stuck with a set amount of intelligence and ability no matter what, why bother working harder? If you can’t do something, you can’t do it, and you just have to accept that.
Growth mindset, on the other hand, is all about understanding that intelligence and ability can be developed. That simple thought has a ripple effect of benefits in multiple facets of life. Where those with fixed mindset feel that criticism is a personal attack, growth mindset means that criticism is an opportunity to learn. Those with a growth mindset welcome criticism, rather than hiding from it.
Instead of viewing other people as threats and feeling inferior when they see someone who is better than them, people with growth mindset view others as an inspiration. Rather than trying to knock them down to feel better about themselves, they try to learn from other people to develop their abilities to become more like them.
Growth mindset encourages people to embrace challenges and persevere through initial obstacles. When someone with a fixed mindset fails, they believe that is the best they will be able to do. But with a growth mindset, much like criticism, failure represents an opportunity to learn and get better. When you have a growth mindset, you understand that failing is a natural part of life and just the beginning of the story rather than the end.
Fostering Growth Mindset with Positive Reinforcement
So what does all this have to do with positive parenting? Well, a growth mindset and a fixed mindset is something children can develop early in life, and a lot of it has to do with the way they were raised.
First of all, it’s connected with the two previous benefits we discussed: confidence and self-reliance. When we teach our children to believe in themselves and take ownership of their responsibilities, they will be less deterred by obstacles and adversity. They will be willing to take on challenges and believe in themselves and their ability to improve.
But there’s another connection as well. Positive parents have to be willing to let their children fail. Earlier, we discussed the difference between positive reinforcement and spoiling a child. Parents who prevent their children from experiencing failure are doing the latter, not the former.
Seeing your child fail and experience hurt and disappointment is a tremendous challenge for any parent. You want to protect your baby and keep them from feeling that pain. But really, that only serves to make the parent feel better. The child is left insulated and untested and is likely to develop a fixed mindset under these conditions.
By allowing your children to fail, they understand that failure is a natural part of life and that it doesn’t define them. They learn to find the lessons in their failures, rather than being discouraged. And it teaches them always to persevere.
Does it Really Work?
We sure have promised a lot. But does positive reinforcement actually work, or is it all just a theory? As a matter of fact, several academic studies have explored and confirmed the efficacy of positive reinforcement in child development.
An essential point that must be made, however, is that positive reinforcement is just one tool in your parenting toolbox. It is not comprehensive in and of itself. Even positive parents must find a balance of kindness and firmness.
Reinforce the behavior you want, but complement that with non-physical punishments (like timeouts or loss of privileges) in response to undesired behavior. Don’t just acknowledge the harmful behavior; always be sure to follow through with your discipline.
But positive reinforcement is an incredibly powerful tool, and any parent would do well to take advantage of it.
Examples of Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement can take many different forms, some simple, others more complex. Some examples, among many others, are:
- Choice of activities
- Choice of chores
- A special meal
- Putting work in a place of honor
- Extra time spent on favorite activities
Each has its benefits. Let’s take a quick look at them one by one.
The simplest form of positive reinforcement is also one of the most powerful. Children of all ages respond well to praise; your teenager may not show it, but it resonates with them too.
One important thing to keep in mind is to be very specific with your praise. Don’t just tell your child they did a good job, tell them what specifically they did well. Your child will feel good either way, but when praise is specific, they will want to repeat that behavior and they will know how to do so.
Choice of Activities
When your child has had a particularly good day, one way to reward them is by allowing them to choose an activity the family will do together that evening. Be sure to directly associate it with their positive behavior, whether by using it as a proverbial carrot preemptively or by tying it in with some praise after the fact when you notice them behaving well.
This is an excellent opportunity not just to reward positive behavior, but also to spend some quality time together as a family.
Choice of Chores
Rewarding a child for good behavior by allowing them to choose what chores they’d like to do that day is a great way to balance positivity and responsibility. Your child likely has some chores they prefer over others. Reward them for good behavior by allowing them to choose their preferred way to contribute to the household.
This can also potentially cause them to take ownership of that task. When your child chooses a chore for themselves, they may be motivated to do a particularly good job.
Does your child have a favorite meal that takes a little extra time to prepare, but they really love? Cooking it for them in response to good behavior can be a great way to reward them.
Take the time during dinner to talk about the things they’ve done well, and how you’re proud of them for it. Ask them how that good behavior made them feel. That creates a great opportunity for praise, reflection, and quality time, all while providing a high-value reward.
Putting Work in a Place of Honor
Putting a well-received test or paper up on the fridge may feel like a cliche, but it’s a common practice for a reason. When kids see their hard work celebrated and recognized in this way, it motivates them to replicate it.
Getting good grades has intrinsic value in its own right, with or without recognition. But children naturally crave validation from their parents. When they see academic performance can be a path to that validation, it will boost their self-esteem and drive them to do even better in school.
Extra Time Spent on Favorite Activities
Does your child have a particular activity about which they’re particularly passionate? Perhaps they love to dance, or paint, or play a sport? A great way to reinforce positive behavior is to give them extra time to spend on that activity—and even better, to engage in it with them.
Learning about the things your child loves to do isn’t just a way to reinforce positive behavior. It’s also a chance to connect with them on an even deeper level. Your child will love it, and you just may have some fun yourself.
Positive Things to Say to Kids
We understand the potential benefits of positive parenting now. But as we’ve discussed, if that’s a style you’re not used to and didn’t experience when you were a kid yourself, it can be a challenge even to know where to begin. Simply speaking to your child consistently in a positive tone will go a long way in helping you develop a positive parenting toolbox. Here are some suggestions to help get you started.
“I love spending time with you”
Children love being around their parents. But they may worry that they’re bothering you. Let them know that the feeling is mutual, and you truly value the quality time you spend together. That will boost their confidence and make them feel self-assured.
“What do you think?”
Your child will naturally view you as an expert on all things (it’s not until you become an adult yourself that you realize adults don’t actually know everything). Let them know that their parent—the expert—values their opinion as well.
“What was your favorite thing you did at school today?”
Contrast this with the more traditional question, “how was your day?” When you orient the question in this way, it serves two purposes. It shows that you’re not just asking to be polite, you’re actually interested in an answer. And it reframes the way your child will think about their day, emphasizing the good things that happened.
“Don’t worry; we all make mistakes.”
We discussed the importance of letting your child fail and the value it can have in fostering a growth mindset. But you have to be there for them when they do. Let them know that mistakes and failures aren’t the end of the world; they’re a natural part of life.
“You’re improving at…”
If your child is working hard in a particular school subject or a hobby, and you notice them getting better, make sure to tell them! It will make them feel valued, and they may not have even noticed their improvement themselves. Realizing that their work is paying off, and yielding results, will motivate them to keep working harder.
“What could we have done differently?”
Part of disciplining your child when they behave in an undesired way is helping reorient them in a positive direction. Rather than focusing solely on the misbehavior, prompt them to reflect on what went wrong, different decisions they could have made, and how that would have changed things.
“How does that make you feel?”
In a similar vein, encouraging your child to reflect on their feelings has several significant benefits. It will let them know that their emotions matter, and you’re thinking about them. And the practice of reflection helps them develop their own emotional intelligence.
“I believe in you.”
Perseverance is an incredibly powerful tool. If your child has been struggling in a certain area, a parent expressing confidence in them can be just the boost they need to keep trying. Over time, that can become a valuable life-long tool.
The Power of Positivity
Positive reinforcement has many significant benefits. It helps kids become more confident, more self-reliant, and more growth-oriented, while avoiding the pitfalls and resentment caused by punishment. It may take some effort on the part of the parent to shift to a more positive parenting style, but it can be more than worth your while.