‘Positive Reinforcement’ is one of those things that sounds great in theory before you have kids. It makes so much sense. It seems reasonable and sane to ‘catch your child doing something good and praise him or her for it.’ Because if you want good behavior, you need to reward good behavior. Isn’t that nice? Sure.
In practice, in our house anyway, I find this isn’t useful advice.
Don’t get me wrong, I still think children should know you appreciate
good behavior, but that whole catching them in the act thing has never
worked for me. I must be doing something distinctly wrong, but I have
never gotten the whole positive reinforcement thing to work at all. I
find it does help if later I tell them after the fact that I’m proud of
them for being good. If we get off to school peacefully I’ll thank them
for it at the end of the day, or if they are especially nice to each
other I’ll mention it as I put them to bed that nothing makes me happier
than seeing them be good to each other.
But if I bring it up while it’s happening? I ruin it. For
instance, I love hearing Quinn sing in the car. It’s completely
adorable when he’s belting out some song in that sweet little voice.
However, if I so much as glance at him and smile in the rearview mirror
while he’s doing it, he gets huffy and stops. If Mona is doing some new
dance move and I tell her to keep it up, it’s over. Done, finished,
kaput. Most of the things my kids do that I want to encourage, they
don’t want to be intruded upon while they are doing them. It breaks the
mood and destroys the flow and pulls them out of what was happening.
Even if they are playing well together and I point out how nice that is
to see, it’s as if I drew attention to something fragile and they become
overly aware of it and it breaks. Those little bursts of positive
reinforcement almost act as an overjustification effect, and sucks the
purity of those moments right out of them. I’ve learned when they are
good to just let them be. Goodness is its own reward. They don’t need
me butting in.
Another way I’ve failed at this concept is with dispensing little
treats or prizes. I had an idea about a year ago where I was trying to
influence the girls’ behavior in a specific area. I went out and bought
all these little ‘pocket pet’ toys they were interested in, and lined
them up on the top of my doorframe. There were about a dozen of these
toys which I told the girls I could add to anytime. The deal was that
there would be no punishment for when they did the behavior we didn’t
want, but when they did the right thing they could select a toy.
Sounded great in my head. But the problem was every day that they
didn’t earn a toy they acted like they were being punished. They pined
for the toys on the doorframe and bemoaned the fact that they hadn’t
earned one every time they came in my room, to the point where I had to
make up other reasons to award the toys and be done with it.
Sticker charts have always been the same way. Not that Mona would
ever have any interest in a sticker chart, but whenever we tried one
with Aden she would get obsessed with the stickers she wasn’t getting.
When she was first learning to use the potty the sticker chart we tried
along with that was a disaster. She cried when she didn’t get one to
the point where there was nothing positive about that kind of
reinforcement and I let it go.
Lucky for me my children tend to be very good in general. There have
been some impressive exceptions, but for the most part my kids are
polite and nice and I don’t have much trouble taking them out anywhere.
We were in Target a few months back, having lunch together, and my kids
were taking turns telling jokes. I find the easiest way to get some
kind of conversation going during a meal with my kids that avoids any
bickering is to pick a theme and take turns. For instance, they like
math problems, so I’ll give Aden something to multiply, and once she’s
figured that out I give Mona some simple addition, and then for Quinn’s
turn he just has to tell me the next number when I stop counting (so if I
get up to 12 and stop he shouts “13!”), and we go around and around
like this until everyone is done eating. I don’t know why this makes
them so happy, but it does. Anyway, they also like to go around in
order telling jokes. Aden is old enough she can actually tell a few
real jokes, but Mona repeats things she’s heard in random order and they
don’t make sense, and Quinn just keeps saying, “Knock knock!” and
laughing until his turn is done.
They were happily going through their joke rotation while eating mac
and cheese, and when I got up to get some napkins an old woman eating
lunch at the next table said to me admiringly, “Your children are so
well behaved!” I smiled and said something like ‘Oh, thank you, I like
them.’ And then she added, “You must be very strict.” That took me by
surprise, because as much as my kids would be the first to tell you I am
not always a barrel of laughs as a mom, ‘strict’ is not a word I would
apply to my parenting style. I think I responded with, ‘Oh, not really,
they’re just usually good,’ but I’ve thought about that word ‘strict’
ever since. I suppose there is nothing wrong with strict. To the
degree it implies ‘predictable’ or ‘consistent’ I can get on board with
it, but there is an element of ‘strict’ that strikes me as potentially
unreasonable or inflexible leaning toward unfair that rubs me the wrong
way. I found it interesting that from the woman of an older generation
it was meant as a compliment but that it struck me in a different way.
In any case, I’m grateful that my children are so nice. They drive
me up a wall sometimes and they are certainly not perfect, but
considering how little handle I have on any actual parenting techniques
for shaping behavior I lucked out that they don’t need much help in the
niceness area. All I can do is love them and point out right and wrong
when I see it and appreciate the sweetness while it lasts. (I’m hearing
tales from the parents of teens that I better enjoy them now before
they morph into surly willful creatures that will make me wonder why I
thought being a parent was a good idea in the first place.)