Did your grandmother ever tell you, "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar?" Well, she was a wise woman and she was right.

 When you use a rewards-based approach to teach children, they remember the lessons longer and are more likely to actually apply them. Why would that be? You (the parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, et al.) are the most important people in a child's life. When you show that you are happy with something a child has done, he will do it over and over again to seal his relationship with you. It's how nurture works. Children need your "honey," your love, and will even do their homework or clean their room to obtain it.

 Scientists use "successive approximations" to train animals in the lab. That just means they have their subjects take tiny steps toward the goal they want them to reach and reward each step in the right direction. So if you want a baby chick to go down a path to the right, you give him some corn; if he even looks to the right, more corn; if he moves to the right, more corn; if he moves toward the path to the right, more corn; another reward for going part way down the path, etc.

 Let's take a situation with a young child. Maybe he is not good at cleaning his room. You could start by showing him what you want him to do. Make it a game and make a big deal out of every sock that goes in the dresser. Say, "Yeah!" and "Great job!" Each time you help clean the room, do less and let the child do more. After a few trials, he should be cleaning the whole room without assistance. Gradually reduce the amount of cheering until there is just one big, "Great Job!" at the end.

 Another way to get a child to clean his room is to use natural consequences. Have a child clean his room in time to have friends over or watch a favorite TV show. This way, you teach the child about good choices at the same time. "You must be tired today. You are cleaning your room so slowly that I am sure (favorite activity) will be over by the time you are done. But you did not really want to do that anyway. Maybe tomorrow."

 "No? You want your favorite activity? I guess you’d better find some energy somewhere to clean your room because at this rate, you’re going to miss it. I'm so sorry, but it's your choice. How are you going to get what you want?" You are teaching the child to reason as well.

 Using a calendar as a behavior chart can also be very effective when you want to build habits. You can say to your child, "Every week that you clean your room, you can put a star on the calendar." You have to help out by checking that the task has been completed and remembering to post the stars. "When you have ____ stars, we can go to the library to borrow a book,” (not everything has to cost money).

 Now, here's the key to this little gem. You are building success. The first time, you use a monthly goal you know he can achieve; maybe it's just twice. After he reaches that goal, you say, "Let's see if you can clean your room four times this month." Rewards can be things that you might have done anyhow, but now they take on special meaning and become bonuses that build good habits.

 It’s important to note that sometimes there are extraordinary circumstances that make the situation more difficult. This could be a mental disorder, school trouble, bullying, or something else along these lines. Always talk to your child. Find out what is beneath the behavior that you see, and help solve their problems. If your efforts to provide your absolute best, most caring parenting still fall short, do not feel scared or embarrassed to seek the help of a professional psychologist or therapist.

 When it comes to raising great kids, always remember Grandma’s secret that "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." Your rewards should always outnumber your punishments by a ratio of four to one. Take tiny steps toward bigger goals and help them see their successes with a behavior calendar and rewards. Above all, talk to your child—teach, love, and problem solve.

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–Dr. Kathy Seifert

About the Author

Kathryn Seifert Ph.D.

Kathryn Seifert, Ph.D., is the author of the Child & Adolescent Risk Evaluation screening tool.

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