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Ira J. Chasnoff, M.D.
Ira J. Chasnoff M.D.

Catch 'em being good!

The only form of discipline that works is positive reinforcement.

My cousin Barbara bought me milkshakes. Starting in first grade, for every 6-week report card that was all "A's," she took me to the local Dairy Treet in our small south Texas town and treated me to a chocolate milkshake. She did eventually admit to project fatigue, but she never waivered and held to her 25 cents commitment until a few years later when she drove off to college. By that time, however, the rewards for success had been deeply ingrained in me, albeit associated with high cholesterol, carbohydrate-laden chocolate milkshakes. This is called "positive reinforcement."

I began thinking about positive reinforcement the other day when I was at the grocery store, filling the list my wife had given me as I left for work that morning. As I turned the corner into the frozen food aisle, I came upon a frazzled mother yelling at her three-year-old to sit still in the grocery cart. The mother's face was flush, her hair in disarray, and she appeared near tears. The three-year-old just stared at her blankly, with absolutely no idea as to what was going on.

Although our discussions in this blog usually focus on "high-risk" children, along the way I will take a few detours to discuss some basic concepts that all parents need to understand. One of the most important of these concepts is discipline.

When it comes to discipline, parents traditionally use two basic tools to manage their children's behaviors: reinforcement and punishment. Reinforcement takes place when something the child likes, such as a sticker, is offered to the child to increase the frequency of an appropriate behavior (e.g., sitting still in the grocery cart). When the desired behavior occurs the reinforcer (sticker) must follow it. Reinforcers cover everything from privileges, attention, praise, power, and choices to material items (including milkshakes).

Punishment is used to decrease the occurrence of an inappropriate or undesirable behavior. When a child is making noises at the dinner table, the parent may reprimand her in an attempt to stop or decrease the behavior. If the child stops making noises after the reprimand, then the reprimand is an effective punishment. Time outs, verbal reprimands, and extra homework are all examples of punishment.

Within the reinforcement/punishment model, there are two aspects: (1) positive and (2) negative. Positive means you've given something in response to a behavior, while negative means you've taken something away. So let's look at positive and negative reinforcement and punishment.

Positive reinforcement Positive reinforcement occurs when a reward or privilege is given following an appropriate behavior, thus increasing the frequency of the behavior. Let's say Jamal is having trouble finishing his homework. Because Jamal is interested in his baseball card collection, his mother works out an agreement with him in which Jamal earns points for every homework assignment he turns in on time. His mother exchanges the points for money that Jamal can use to purchase baseball cards. Jamal completes his homework on time. Positive reinforcement has occurred because the frequency of the appropriate behavior has increased in response to the presence of the reinforcer.

Negative reinforcement Negative reinforcement occurs when an event or object the child dislikes is removed after the child demonstrates the appropriate behavior. For example, Tom never seems to complete class assignments, even though his teacher knows he is capable of doing the work. The teacher stands near Tom's desk, prompting him to complete the work. Tom does not like the teacher's frequent prompts, but he begins completing his work; in turn, the teacher walks away and leaves him alone. Tom continues to finish his work to avoid future prompting. Negative reinforcement has occurred because the frequency of the appropriate behavior increased in response to the removal of the unwanted prompt.

Positive punishment Positive punishment occurs when an undesirable requirement or condition is introduced to the child to reduce the occurrence of an inappropriate behavior. Eric is playing around and not listening to the coach during practice. The coach tells him to do 50 push-ups. Positive punishment has occurred because the coach seeks to decrease the frequency of the behavior through the presence of the punishment.

Negative punishment Negative punishment occurs when a desirable event or object is removed after instances of unwanted behavior, resulting in a decrease in the behavior. Removing privileges, the most common use of negative punishment, can be effective in the short term for reducing misbehavior. Tamara continually talks to her friends during class, despite frequent reminders to stop. The teacher punishes her by not allowing her to go outside during recess. Negative punishment has occurred because the teacher is attempting to decrease an undesirable behavior by removing a desired event or response.

These are the four forms of discipline. However, the only one that works is positive reinforcement. That's why I always tell parents to "catch 'em being good!" Let me say that again. Negative reinforcement or any kind of punishment simply does not work to change your child's long-term behavior. You may argue with me, you may send me contrary opinions via email, but I stand by my statement. The only thing that works is positive reinforcement. If the mother at the grocery store had complimented her child for sitting so nicely in the grocery cart rather than waiting until the child was beginning to squirm, the confrontation probably could have been avoided.

Of course, the trick is that the most important form of positive reinforcement is grounded in the relationship between parent and child. A parent's smile works even better than a chocolate milkshake.

About the Author
Ira J. Chasnoff, M.D.

Ira J. Chasnoff, M.D., is a Professor of Clinical Pediatrics at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago. His most recent work is The Mystery of Risk.

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