‘Rewards’ do not equal positive reinforcement.

By definition, positive reinforcement occurs when something is presented immediately following a behavior and as a result, that behavior occurs more often in the future.

Behavior–>Something is added–>behavior occurs more often in the future

Randomly giving out praise, candy, stickers, tokens, rewards, whatever you use does not equal positive reinforcement.

There are two key points here:

1.     Immediately following the desired behavior

2.     An increase in the desired behavior

If your kid does a good job sitting nicely through dinner at a restaurant so the next day you take him to the park—what is the problem here? It’s not immediate.

If your kid does a good job sitting nicely through dinner at a restaurant so you give him ice cream, but next time you go to a restaurant your meal is a disaster—what is the problem here? The desired behavior didn’t increase.

If your kid goes in the potty and you praise the heck out of them only to  have an accident an hour later—was your praise a strong enough reinforcer? No. The desired behavior didn’t increase.

As a mom, what does this technical definition have to do with you?

It’s easy. Just pay attention to what happens after you give what you consider a reward. Was it effective? Did the desired behavior increase? Not really- then it’s time to go back to square one. Make the reward immediate and make it strong enough that the behavior will increase in the future.

Good examples:

Your child eats all the food on their plate at dinner. You give lots of praise and extra screen time after dinner. The next night, they eat all their food again!

Your child picks up their toys the first time you ask them to. You give them a marble in their marble jar to help them earn a big reward. Next time the toys are out- your child cleans up nicely without protest.

Positive reinforcement in action!

Take away- don’t just give your kid candy and stickers and whatnot willy nilly. Take a minute to think about what you are doing and pay attention to what happens next time in the same situation.

Don’t waste your time on random rewards. Take the time to effectively use positive reinforcement!

Research is cool!
Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. SimonandSchuster.com.
Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Basic Concepts. In Applied Behavior Analysis(2nd ed., pp 256-260. Columbus: Pearson.
McLeod, S. A. (2007). Skinner – Operant Conditioning. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html

Want some more behavior strategies for moms? Parenting with Science: Behavior Analysis Saves Mom’s Sanity is available now!