One of the biggest arguments against the use of positive reinforcement is this: reliance on external control. The goal is always intrinsic, or internal, motivation for our kids to WANT to engage in appropriate behaviors. The goal for myself is intrinsic motivation to make healthy choices, too. We ALL want more intrinsic motivation for doing things the best possible way.

But, alas, we are humans. Our kids are human. Humans tend to want the most immediately satisfying choice. We gravitate towards the easy and the immediate. To change that to make healthier choices, to get better at communication, to have stronger relationships- sometimes we need to rely on external motivation. But it’s not forever.

The goal of any positive reinforcement system put in place should always be to fade it out. Planned specific positive reinforcement is to build up a behavior or a skill that is lacking. We need the external reinforcement because we simply do not have that skill and do not have the intrinsic motivation to build that skill. If we had the motivation, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. There would be no need.

So what do we do? We teach the new skill then help that skill happen more often with the intentional use of positive reinforcement. Once the skill is happening more often, we start to fade out the external reinforcement. And what happens? Does that skill stop happening? Do we stop doing the things once the external rewards are stopped? If so- we adjust and keep going with the positive reinforcement. But if we fade out the reinforcement successfully, then the skill keeps happening. We NOW have the intrinsic motivation we needed from the get go. We now have the internal reinforcement to keep going without outside influences.

Let’s look at an example to make more sense of this big picture situation.

Your child is hitting their siblings whenever they don’t like something. You want to them to use their words instead. You tell your child over and over to say “I don’t like that” instead of hitting. Use of a reward system where every time saying “I don’t like that” earns a point toward a small prize at the end of the day (like a 5 minute later bedtime or choosing where to sit at dinner or something) is helping to get your child to use their words more often and hit less often. So now you have to offer a prize every single day for the rest of this child’s life. Nope.

After a week or so, you fade to earning a prize every other day, every few days, every week. The use of the phrase “I don’t like that” is continuing. The hitting is decreasing and going almost completely away (to typical levels in a sibling relationship- let’s be honest here). You eventually stop giving the prize. You’ve successfully transferred that external reinforcement to your child- to intrinsic motivation.

text: don't just give more attention

Can we speed up this process at all? Why not give it a try by bringing to attention those internal states like pride and feeling accomplished when making good choices?

When your child does something well- don’t just make it about your appreciation of them. Go from “I’m so proud of you” to “Aren’t you feeling proud of yourself?”

Instead of just “Good job using your words” try “I noticed you used your words. How are you feeling right now?”

Think about self esteem versus other esteem when you are talking to your kids. Sometimes we need to start with that outside reinforcement or other esteem. But the goal is AWLAYS to fade it to self. How do you feel about ___ ? Did you notice how you did ____? What do you want to do more of/ feel more of ____?


Transfer that locus of control from external reinforcement to internal motivation. Always fade out the external reinforcement. Start adding in more questions for your child. Don’t require a response when you ask if they are proud of themselves or how they are feeling. Just put the thought out there. Bring it to light. Call attention to the fact that what self-esteem is at play here and it’s important.

Which of these scenarios is more powerful to you?

  1. Me telling you that you are a good mom.
  2. Feeling proud of yourself for being a good mom.

Now think about what is more powerful for your kids?

  1. Makin mom & dad proud
  2. Feeling proud of themselves

Not sure how to fade out systems or how to get to this point? You can always book a free consult call here.