The Battle Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement

emotional intelligence  positive parenting 

By Traci Esposito

The Battle Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement

Small battles can be found in the nooks and crannies of parenting … whether it's the battle known as sibling rivalry, the battle for a few extra hours (okay, minutes) of sleep each night, or the battle at the dinner table. It may feel like there's always something, and it can leave us feeling frustrated and alone.

We parents have long searched for a solution when it comes to behavior modification, asking ourselves, which is more effective, positive or negative reinforcement?

But before we jump there, let's first discuss reinforcement at its core. Breaking it down, reinforcement, (when dissected by this self-proclaimed wordie) literally equates to: make (en) strong (force) again (re). It's really just increasing the likelihood that something will happen again, or making a certain response stronger. 

The Difference Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement

The type of reinforcement we use influences how we show up to the behavior of our children. Positive reinforcement is adding something to provoke desired behavior, while negative reinforcement focuses on removing something to impact behavior. Both forms, however, come from operant conditioning and are built on the foundation that we can encourage or discourage a response or behavior based on how we manage (or parent) the child. And while reinforcement might work in the short-term to elicit the desired behavior, in doing solely these things, we are bypassing the mind and heart, and really, the child as a whole. 

The Disadvantages of Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement might seem to work well for certain kids, and adults too. It's easy to fall into the trap of rewarding and praising because it feels more positive than punishment. But, because it's a training tool, positive reinforcement can cause children to expect rewards every time they behave in a desirable way, which is difficult to sustain. Instead of cleaning up, being kind, doing chores, etc. from a place of positive, intrinsic motivation (something that comes from within), they do it because they want what comes after (the something that comes from outside of them). In this case, children aren't learning the why, they are learning to do a trick to get their treat.

The Disadvantages of Negative Reinforcement

Most parents believe that punishment is the same as negative reinforcement and assume it works because it stops a behavior. If you punish your child for screaming or not cleaning their room, they might be likely to repeat the better behavior to avoid punishment. But it does not mean that the child has learned differently or reprocessed information on what is happening and why. Instead of allowing space for growth and brain integration, their behavior is restricted. The child makes choices based on programmed habitual responses rather than choosing desired behaviors consciously. 

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What to do Instead of Positive or Negative Reinforcement

So, if the battle between positive and negative reinforcement ends in a 0-0 tie, where do we go next? The answer is in the science of the brain. Developmental psychology shows us that strong relationships over any type of behavior modification training program - positive or negative - are paramount. Infants and young children require stable, caring relationships brewing with positive connection and interactive relationships with adult caregivers. 

The Time-In ToolKit provides opportunities for daily connection and play, and it creates a safe space for children to notice, feel, and process their emotions - the same emotions that lead to their behaviors. It’s in understanding these sensations that children can choose to shift their actions. This process meets our children where they are and, through co-regulation, we guide them to strengthen the muscles of self-awareness, empathy, impulse control, problem-solving, conflict resolution, and more. Rather than learning to be obedient or sneaky or do this for that, Time-Ins turn the learning inward. 

So, if you're wondering how to manage the behaviors of the little ones in your life, it's not a losing battle. Lean into the tools you already have inside of you. The love you were made from is all they need. Connect before you correct, and before you know it, you'll be enjoying all the feels, together. And together is a great place to be.

•  •  •

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