Positive vs. Negative Reinforcement: A Guide for Parents


positive vs negative reinforcement: girl on swing

I almost stopped bringing them to the playground.

With two children under the age of 4, playgrounds had been a place of respite for me. I could sit on the bench and catch up with some parent friends while my littles jumped, slid, and climbed to their heart's content in a controlled setting. We could all let off a little steam there, but leaving the playground had become such a process that I almost stopped going altogether. 

Inevitably, when I announced it was time to go, my 3-year-old would run away. Laughing maniacally, he’d climb a slide or shimmy to the top of a play structure and gleefully gaze down at me as though it was a joke, as though dinner didn’t need to be made and naps didn’t need to happen.

Meanwhile my 2-year-old would cry. He didn’t want to leave either, though he wasn’t quick enough to escape, so there he’d be, his hand in mine with tears running down his face. And when he really wasn’t feeling it, this would escalate to sad face plus flailing body slung under my arm. In either case, we were a scene, and by the time I got them into the car, everyone, including yours truly, was in tears.

Executing a graceful playground exit is apparently one of the finer arts of parenting, and clearly one I hadn’t mastered. In fact, I didn’t even have a clue where to begin. When the pattern started to deter me from going to the playground altogether, I knew something had to change. But what? Do I need to start punishing my kids, counting to three, hoping I make it no further than two and a half before my children come running? Am I supposed to yell at them until they do what I say?? Or is raising the white flag a better approach, burying my head in my hands and letting them see me cry in desperation? 

None of those felt quite right. We are a family who talks things out and I totally got why they didn’t want to leave the playground. Heck, there were days when I didn’t want to leave. Overpowering my kids with threats, bribes or punishments was tempting, but honestly, it just felt wrong. Wouldn’t I just be teaching them that might makes right?

But if not by overpowering or controlling them with force, how could I get them to understand that we couldn’t permanently move into the playground? How do I help to shape their decision-making process so we can all leave the playground with less of a fuss? Why does anyone choose one behavior over the other, anyway? I worked hard to catapult myself back to the psychology class I took as an undergrad for some answers.  

What Is Negative Reinforcement?

boy leaning on arms

Both positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement were first described by psychologist B.F. Skinner in his theory of operant conditioning. He was trying to describe how people make one choice over another. Long story short, he came to realize there are many different types of reinforcement. One type is negative reinforcement. 

Here’s a definition from The Very Well Mind: Negative reinforcement is when people are conditioned to exhibit certain behaviors in order to stop an aversive stimulus.

What does that mean exactly? Well, an aversive stimulus is basically a fancy name for something that is undesirable, that we naturally try to avoid. When we choose to act a certain way in order to stop an aversive stimulus, we're motivated by negative reinforcement. We choose the particular behavior that will stop the undesired response. 

This may not be the way that you're used to thinking about it — it certainly wasn’t for me — so let's take a look at some examples. 

Examples of Negative Reinforcement

positive vs negative reinforcement: bowl of pasta
  • Your child throws a tantrum when you mix vegetables into her macaroni and cheese. The next time you make mac and cheese, you don't mix vegetables in because you don’t want to deal with a tantrum. 
    • Here, the target behavior your child was hoping for is no vegetables in her mac and cheese, and the negative stimulus you want to avoid is the tantrum. 
    • By not throwing a tantrum when the mac and cheese is served without veggies, your child has used a negative reinforcer to condition you to leave the veggies out.
  • Your child doesn’t like brushing his teeth and has to get two cavities filled at the dentist. Afterwards, your child begins to brush his teeth and floss consistently because he doesn’t like having cavities filled. 
    • In this case, the specific behavior is teeth brushing, and the negative stimulus that is removed is getting a cavity filled. 
    • By not having a cavity filled when he brushes his teeth well, your child is conditioned by negative reinforcement to brush his teeth regularly. 

Is Negative Reinforcement the Same as Punishment?

If you're like me, you may have assumed that negative reinforcement includes the word "negative" because certain behavior leads to negative results, or punishment. In reality, though, in negative reinforcement the word negative is used to indicate that something is taken away or negated, not that an unwanted consequence is introduced.

Although parents do sometimes use negative reinforcement to motivate behavior, punishments and negative reinforcement are not the same thing. That's because typically a punishment works by adding an uncomfortable stimulus as the response to unwanted behavior. Punishments motivate a behavior change by adding something — an unwanted reinforcer in response to misbehavior — not by taking one away for desired behavior.

Examples of Punishment vs. Negative Reinforcement

  • Punishment: A child doesn’t want to clean his room. His parents remind him, but he still won't clean it. If they introduce a timeout until he cleans his room, this is an example of a punishment. Why? Because a negative stimulus is introduced to motivate the target behavior. 
  • Negative Reinforcement: In a similar scenario, a child doesn’t want to clean his room, but this time, his parents don’t introduce a punishment. The next day, when he can’t find his favorite action figure, his parents suggest it might be easier to locate the toy if he cleaned up. The child cleans his room and finds his action figure. Here, the negative stimulus is the child's inability to find his toy. His cleaning up is motivated by his desire to stop his toy from being lost, so this is an example of negative reinforcement at work.

Now, let's go back to my playground exit strategy. If I start counting to three or yell or put them in timeout for not getting a move on, is this negative reinforcement?

If I did any of these things, my kids would be scrambling to the car to avoid an unwanted consequence — whether it’s timeout or even just me yelling. These are punishments rather than a form of negative reinforcement. 

But I want my kids to learn and grow from mistakes, not fear them. Still, there are times when we need to leave the playground, and I can’t go on fighting about it every time. So what’s the other option?  

What Is Positive Reinforcement?

family holding hands

In general, positive reinforcement is a little easier to understand:

Positive reinforcement, according to PositivePyschology.com, is when a desirable response is added after the expected behavior occurs. Here, the word positive refers to the addition of a stimulus rather than to its positive nature. 

Also first described by Skinner, positive reinforcement can take several forms because there are a few different types of reinforcements. The four varieties of positive reinforcers to help children grow and develop emotional intelligence include the following:

  • natural reinforcers
  • token reinforcers
  • social reinforcers
  • tangible reinforcers

What do these reinforcers look like in practice, and are they all created equal?

Examples of Positive Reinforcement

positive vs negative reinforcement: children in classroom

A natural reinforcer is essentially a natural consequence of positive behavior. 

  • For example, your child studies her spelling words and does well on a test. Her work is rewarded by the desired score, so she chooses to study again for the next test. 
  • These natural consequences may be things you don’t directly control, but pointing them out to your child may help her recognize how her efforts have paid off. Discussing how she feels when she works hard for something and succeeds can remind her how capable she is and nurture her growth mindset. 

A token reinforcer is a reward that can be exchanged for something else. 

  • For example, your child earns a sticker every time she gets herself ready for school. When she fills her sticker chart, she receives a special treat, so she gets ready every morning because she wants the treat. 
  • Token reinforcers are usually unrelated to the behavior or actions you’re trying to reinforce. These types of extrinsic rewards are easy to employ, but I’ve found them hard to maintain because the behavior is always linked to some kind of reward. When I used one for my son during potty training, he started going to the bathroom every five minutes just to get another sticker. Then, once he had finished potty training, he still requested a sticker every time he went. If, instead of linking the stickers to a reward, you instead use them to track how your child is feeling, they can become a fun game that reinforces the positive feelings you all share when things go well.

A social reinforcer is positive encouragement from others. 

  • For example, when your son combs his hair in the morning, his teacher tells him his hair looks nice today. He then chooses to comb his hair again the next day. 
  • As our kids grow older, social reinforcers become less about us as parents and more about peers and other influences, but when our kids are still little, we can build their confidence so that social reinforcement becomes less about how others perceive them and more about how they interact with others. When I point out to my son that I noticed someone smile at him when he waved in the grocery store, he begins to notice that the kindness we give to others grows and multiplies out from us, often helping us and others feel happier, too.

A tangible reinforcer is an actual physical reward. 

  • For example, your child doesn't fuss at the doctor and is allowed to choose something from the treasure box in the lobby. The next time you go to the doctor, she cooperates so that she can get another prize. 
  • There will always be tangible rewards in your child’s life, whether they are from you, from the doctor, or from classmates and teachers. When your child receives a tangible reward for something, you can help her to understand why she is being rewarded by talking about the specific behavior and corresponding reward. Then discuss how she feels when that happens.

Now, how about my children at the playground? How could I employ these same theories to make our exit smoother? 

There is always a reason why we have to leave the playground. Sometimes it’s because I need to hurry home in order to make dinner. Other times it’s because we have gymnastics class. Although little, my children were more than capable of knowing why these things are important. 

As it turned out, my key to leaving the playground was to sit down with the boys at home and simply tell them why we need to leave the playground and how they can help. We talked about how fun the playground is and how hard it can be to leave something that’s fun, but we also talked about how we feel when we’re hungry and dinner is late or when we miss gymnastics. 

We also set a clear boundary together, including a little compromise — when Mom says it’s time to leave the playground, they each get one more trip down the slide and one more lap around the perimeter to “shake the sillies out” before we get in the car. Then when we get in the car, I am sure to tell them how they helped us get to our next activity in time. 

Positive reinforcement is often regarded as one of the most effective tools of positive parenting. Not only does positive reinforcement help children thrive, it also allows caregivers to connect positively, motivating children to grow as individuals.

How to Use Positive Reinforcement Effectively in Your Family

mother holding child

  • Praise instead of criticism: This might seem obvious, but as adults, we’re often used to focusing on what's wrong that can be fixed. In positive reinforcement, we help our children understand and focus on the wonderful things they’re already doing. 
  • Repetition: As is the case for all forms of reinforcement, consistency is key. Clear expectations reinforced consistently nurture resilience and allow a child to develop a confident sense of self-awareness. Repetition ensures that our kids understand what we’re teaching them.
  • Timing: Positive reinforcement is most effective when it is used directly following or as close to the desired behavior as possible. By reinforcing behavior we want to see as it happens, we make things clearer for our kids. This reinforcement schedule helps them more closely link whatever they just did with the resulting positive reinforcement, helping to shape new behaviors over the long term.
  • Focusing on the behavior, not the person. We want our children to know we love them no matter what. This is why, when we want to give them redirection, we focus on behavior. We want them to know that we don't love them any less when they misbehave. The same is true for reinforcing the types of behavior that we do want to see. By talking specifically about behavior and feelings instead of your child in general, you help reaffirm that your love is constant and doesn't depend on how well your child has behaved today. 

Positive and negative reinforcement may not be intuitive to grasp. But when we connect with our children in a positive way, we help them build important social and emotional skills. These are skills that help them handle struggle and engender a sense of connection, self-reliance, and self-awareness. When we start focusing on the behavior we want to see and offering positive reinforcers to support that behavior, we give our children valuable tools to help them grow.

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