Understanding Reinforcement vs. Punishment

I simply cannot blog another week without covering reinforcement and punishment. These are terms you have probably heard before and you may have a thorough understanding of them or an inkling about what they mean, but they are critical to parenting so let’s spend some time refreshing your memory. The quick psychology history lesson is that these terms are part of B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning theory that developed in reaction to John B. Watson’s classical conditioning theory (think Pavlov’s dogs) and spawned the behaviorism movement in psychology. We’ll talk more about Pavlov and Watson another time. We now know that both forms of behaviorism are valid in different applications, and from the later cognitive psychology movement we know that thoughts and attitudes clearly cannot be ignored as influences on behavior. For today, let’s focus just on how parents can use reinforcement and punishment to improve their parent-child interactions. To understand these concepts, it is simplest to look at them in a grid:

  Positive Negative
Reinforcement Adding something good

Ex: Praise

Removing something bad

Ex: Stopping a nagging song

Punishment Adding something bad

Ex: Cleaning house

Removing something good

Ex: Taking away a toy

Reinforcement comes in two types, positive and negative. Positive reinforcement means adding a pleasant stimulus (adding something good) to increase the likelihood of a behavior. If your child says, “May I have the milk please,” you hand the milk and say, “Here you go Johnny, and I love how you used your good manners.” Johnny is happy to receive your praise and is more likely to say please in the future. Other examples of positive reinforcement are clapping when a child puts their shoes on by themselves, scheduling a play date when they show good behavior at home, or getting a lollipop at the end of the grocery trip if they sat nicely in the cart.

Negative reinforcement means removing an aversive stimulus (taking away something bad) to increase the likelihood of a behavior. A couple of my kids have gone through phases where they would get in the car and take forever to put on their seatbelts. After trying a few different approaches, I found the one that worked best for my munchkins is singing the seatbelt song, “The first thing you do when you get in the car is strap in, strap in” and simply saying that over and over again (with increasing volume if necessary) until they strap in. If you have a good singing voice, this technique may not work for you, but when I say those first few words of the song, they usually get to buckling up quite quickly now. More examples of negative reinforcement are a child putting away their shoes so mom stops nagging them, letting a child walk on the sidewalk without holding your hand when they agree to stay right next to you, or switching the radio station after a child adds “please” to their request.

Punishment also comes in two types, positive and negative. The term positive can be very confusing in this context but remember positive just means to add something (good or bad). Positive punishment means adding an aversive stimulus (adding something bad) but this time the stimulus is meant to decrease the likelihood of a behavior. For example, if my boys get too rough with each other, they are put to work cleaning the house. First they must “check-in” with the victim. In our house this means a sincere apology in a nice tone of voice and an inquiry as to how the guilty party may help to make it up to the victim (take a turn with a coveted toy, clean up the toys they were playing with, etc.). But if mom has to get involved because the roughness continues, they are off to wipe down the walls, doors, or table chairs. A little physical labor helps to get out that extra energy and deter further roughness. Other examples of positive punishment are speaking to your child in a firm tone, giving a disapproving look when you see your child behaving poorly, or having to say 10 nice things for every unkind thing they say to someone.

Finally, negative punishment means removing a pleasant stimulus (taking away something good) to help decrease the likelihood of a behavior. When one of my boys was 7 years old and regressed into biting siblings when he was angry, we tried a few approaches and ultimately had to step things up a notch by making the rule that if he bit someone, that person could choose any one of his Lego sets to play with for an entire week. This happened once and there were tears, complaints that the punishment was too harsh, and sadness when the Lego set was dismantled by a younger sibling, but we felt that this was a very serious behavior that needed to be stopped. It tugged on my heartstrings to see him so upset, but guess how many times he has bitten a sibling since then…zero! More examples of negative punishment are leaving a play date early for poor behavior, skipping dessert if you don’t eat your dinner, or removing toys if you don’t clean up after playing.

So there you go, four powerful tools in your parenting tool belt to help motivate your child’s behavior to be more in line with your expectations. Amazing parents use reinforcement throughout the day, every day. Punishment should be used infrequently after first attempting other options. Parenting can be very frustrating at times, and even the best parents sometimes loose their cool and yell at their children, but your goal should be to avoid that form of positive punishment. Physical punishment, such as spanking, should never be used. Now that you have a better understanding of these terms, take a look at how you interacted with your children today and see if you can fit examples from your own life into these four categories. If you’re heavy on the punishment side, make it your goal to focus on reinforcement tomorrow!

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