My last post was about using negative consequences effectively. In that post, I provided examples of negative consequences that are relevant to parenting. If you haven’t seen that post yet, it would be a good idea to read it here before continuing with this one.
In contrast to negative consequences, positive consequences can be really fun for parents. Even better, they can be very effective at increasing the likelihood of good behavior down the road. Just as punishment and negative consequences are not synonymous, reinforcement is not exactly the same as positive consequences. Rewards offered by parents when they are pleased with their child’s good behavior in the hopes that the good behavior will be repeated are examples of reinforcement. If the rewards work to increase the frequency of the good behavior, then they are true reinforcers.
Sometimes, however, good things just happen naturally as a result of good behavior. Think about it; this is how the world often works. You study for the permit test, you pass it the first time you take it. You spend the summer working on your ball handling skills and getting into shape, you earn a starting position on the soccer team. You put in extra hours working on a big project at work, you get a raise and/or a promotion. Of course, this is not always the case, but generally speaking, good behavior results in positive consequences.
When positive consequences occur naturally, it is not necessary for parents to offer an additional reward. In fact, it may be counterproductive to do so. Think about this true scenario. Graham attended a tiny progressive school for kindergarten through sixth grade. Instead of assigning grades, the teachers wrote narrative descriptions of the child’s learning and progress in academics, athletics, and the arts. Graham was a child who loved learning. He spent hours digging into books and internet research whenever a topic sparked his interest. He went above and beyond on school projects and often asked teachers to give him additional, more challenging work in math. This family had such a great thing going, Graham’s parents were understandably worried about the transition to a new middle school. They selected another progressive school for their son, one known for its rigorous academics and innovative teaching practices, but this one used a traditional grading system. They were so concerned about Graham’s adjustment to the new school and to traditional report cards that they offered to pay him $10 for each A and $5 for each B he earned.
Five months into the school year, I met Graham and his family. He was earning mostly A’s but claimed to hate everything about his new school. He felt pressured by his parents and teachers and had developed new school-related anxieties. After a thorough evaluation that included input from Graham, his parents, and several of his teachers, I concluded that Graham was experiencing situational anxiety. He was not a child with an anxious temperament nor did he meet criteria for an anxiety disorder. He was simply having some anxiety in reaction to all of the changes he had experienced and some difficulty adjusting to a new situation.
Graham and I spent one of our early sessions together exploring the various reasons he had gone from “loving to learn” to “hating everything about school.” He mentioned several reasons, such as that his best friends had gone to different schools and it was hard making new ones, he had much more homework in the new school, he did not like the new school’s requirement that all students sing in chorus or play an instrument, and finally,
School used to be about learning interesting stuff and now it’s just about getting good grades. Graham, 12 years old
I was surprised by this last comment because I was pretty familiar with the new school, and it certainly did not have a pressure-cooker reputation. When I dug down a little deeper into Graham’s perception about the importance of grades at the new school, he told me about the monetary reward his parents had offered him at the beginning of school for earning A’s and B’s. The irony of the situation is that Graham was earning mostly A’s and, therefore, getting a nice payout on report card day. Still, the fact of the promised reward took the focus off of what Graham loved about school – learning (an intrinsic reward) – and put it onto something that Graham didn’t care much about – grades (an extrinsic reward).
An intrinsic reward is one that is naturally pleasing to the individual and is a direct consequence of the desirable behavior. An extrinsic reward is one that is contrived and not a direct consequence of the behavior. For example, for many young people, practicing an instrument brings intrinsic rewards such as creating music and a feeling of accomplishment. For others, practicing an instrument may not bring such pleasure or sense of mastery. For these young people, an extrinsic reward might be helpful. Offering a reward for a behavior that is already intrinsically rewarding for a child is not necessary, and, as in the example above, can be counterproductive.
There are a few additional rules of thumb about using positive consequences effectively.
Never, ever offer a positive consequence to end a negative behavior, for example, offering a child a cookie if he will stop whining. This contingency leads to nothing good. Think about it. If a child can get a cookie for stopping whining, then he first has to whiiiiiiiiiiiiine! You may think of the cookie as a reward for calming down or getting himself under control. Trust me, he will understand it differently. For a powerful illustration of why this is a very bad practice, read about Will and the Awesome Power of Intermittent Reinforcement.
Use clear language to communicate the connection between a specific behavior and a positive consequence. Say, for example, “I am so impressed with how long and hard you worked with Dad and me to clean out the garage, I want to take you out for ice cream,” or, “You got ready for bed so quickly and cooperatively that I am going to read you an extra bedtime story.” Comments like “good job” or “you’re such a good kid” have little value because they are too vague and too broad.
Praise and attention are often all that is needed for an effective positive consequence. Tangible rewards like money, electronics, and outings should be reserved for times when trying to bring about big and challenging behavioral changes over time. For example, tangible rewards are good for improving compliance with chores or homework (but only if a tidy room and excellent grades are not already intrinsically reinforcing for a particular child).
Spontaneous rewards are preferable to promised rewards, whenever possible. Rewards (praise, attention, tangible rewards) that you feel moved to offer in the moment, as opposed to rewards promised in advance, allow a child to engage in desirable behavior for the sake of helping out/complying/doing well/achieving as opposed to engaging in the behavior in order to get something. Spontaneous rewards are less likely to undermine the power of intrinsic rewards.
Love (or the withdrawal of love) should never be used as a consequence. Love must be unconditional. In fact, it is a child’s absolute trust in parental love that makes it possible for parents to use consequences effectively without doing harm to the parent-child relationship. In highly distressed families in which love and attachment are in question, consequences do not work. Be careful with the language you use. It’s best to avoid comments like “I love you when you share your trucks with kids at the playground,” and to say, instead, “It was so nice of you to share your trucks with the kids at the playground.” Expressions of love should be frequent and sincere but not contingent on good behavior.
The effective use of positive consequences, along with the passage of time, brought a successful resolution to Graham’s anxiety and unhappiness about the new school. While Graham liked the money he earned for getting good grades, he was uncomfortable with the contingency. Mom and Dad agreed to shift the reward from grades to instrument practice. This worked out nicely because Graham wanted to learn to play drums, and his parents were not thrilled with the idea of buying him a drum set since he had been resistant to practicing the clarinet for school. They agreed to lend him the money for the drum set and then to give him credit for practicing. If he met the drum teacher’s expectations regarding practicing, they would deduct $20/week from his debt. He could earn additional deductions by practicing above and beyond the teacher’s requirements.
In addition, Mom and Dad changed the way they talked to Graham about school. They continued to express their pleasure about good grades, but in a very toned-down way. They started to offer praise and spontaneous rewards for their son’s engagement with learning. For example, toward the end of the school year, Graham had to complete an independent science project. Following a lesson in his health class that sparked his interest in nutrition, he designed a fairly complicated study to see how much the sugar content of a brownie recipe could be reduced without affecting his classmates’ tastiness ratings. Whenever Mom or Dad found him researching the topic online or scouring Mom’s cookbooks for the perfect brownie recipe to use in his experiment, they made comments like “I am so impressed with how much energy you are putting into this project” or they gave him their attention by offering to assist him in the kitchen.
The final factor that helped Graham feel better about the new school was developing relationships. He formed a close connection with his science teacher and several kids in his grade. He joined the jazz band where he played drums and made friends with several older middle-schoolers.
By the time Graham and I said our goodbyes, he was back to being a happy and relaxed kid with a real joy of learning. He even told me that his parents had selected the perfect school for him. He continued to do well academically even though he remained unmotivated by grades. Last time I saw Graham, he was well on his way to a zero balance on the debt he owed his parents for the drum set.
[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]