Psych Services: Sort out your child’s good behavior and bad and be careful about rewards and punishments

Lisa Garmezy

A teenaged Keanu Reeves, in the movie Parenthood, says mournfully, “You need a license to catch a fish, but they let any (expletive) become a father.” If a test and a license were required, parenting would look quite different. Certain teachable skills can make things run smoother.

Of course, being sensitive to your children’s needs and the other touchy-feely tasks are always challenging, but the principles of shaping behavior are easy to acquire. When followed consistently, four simple rules will change your children and change your life.

Rule 1: Don’t Reward Bad Behavior

    We’ve all seen weary parents cave in to begging in the store. We’ve all been that parent. Sometimes the whining seems unbearable.

But give in, and you have taught your child to beg, or to throw tantrums. He’s going to do it again, and expect the same reaction.

That’s because tomorrow’s behavior is shaped by the response to today’s behavior. This is operant conditioning, for those who took Introductory Psychology.

If you’re skeptical, think about how long you’d show up for work if your primary reward for that behavior—your paycheck—was cut off. People have trouble quitting smoking because the long-term reward of clean lungs seems so far away and the short-term reward of the nicotine hit reinforces lighting up. We make people pay fines for breaking traffic rules so that the behavior will happen less frequently in the future, and so on.

Here’s an insider’s tip on not reinforcing horrible behavior. If you know you don’t have the stamina to resist your kid, cave in right away. Be the generous, hero parent AND stick to a policy of “no means no.”

 Rule 2: Do Reward Good Behavior

    Again, shape tomorrow’s behavior today! The ordinary goodies that you sprinkle into your children’s lives are a powerful tool, but not when they are handed out randomly. Give them to your child following good behavior, and that behavior will be more likely to happen again. For example, an improved “Friday folder,” or chores done without complaint might merit a special dessert, a small toy, screen time, or a trip to McDonald’s.

Most of our kids are drowning in stuff, especially at this time of the year. So forget the stuff. Our children crave social rewards, such as eye contact, detailed and specific praise, and hugs.

To follow Rule No. 2, recognize your own hidden power. Your attention has a profound effect on your children. As Robin Berman says in Permission to Parent, children spell love “T-I-M-E.” More crassly, your attention is like manure—whatever you spread it on will grow.

An earlier column talked about what happens when siblings fight—parents step in, right? And that’s the point of at least half of sibling conflicts—to win your attention. When the kids are entertaining themselves, parents take a well-earned break or tackle chores.

But that means you’re ignoring the good behavior. If you want to see more of it, focus for a few minutes on what the kids are doing. Play with them for a bit, or ask them about their activity—the social reward will make peaceful play more likely to re-occur.

Rule 3: Don’t Accidentally Punish Good Behavior

    Here’s how to decrease cooperation:


Sarah: “I washed the dishes, Dad.”

Dad: “But you didn’t touch the counters! You are nowhere near finished, young lady.”


In this example, Dad’s criticism has presented a punishment for good behavior. Sarah will be less likely, not more likely, to get to kitchen clean-up in the future.

Or consider how little children happily show their school papers to parents. When they start hearing, “Really, you missed that?” and “This paper’s a mess!” the criticism punishes the behavior of showing off schoolwork, and it dies out.

 Rule 4: Do Punish Bad Behavior

You’ve got this. Or do you? Most parents need to talk less and do more—to stop fussing at their kids in the same old way and follow through with consequences that were made clear in advance. Grounded means grounded, no matter who’s having a party. As Berman says, “Hate me now, thank me later.”

Years ago, I had a mom in my office, distraught because her son kept misbehaving. The police officer father worked long and odd hours, and she felt like a single parent. Some days her husband only made it home to take a nap while the kids were in school. The mother tearfully explained that she hated bugging her husband at work. When her son was completely out of control, however, she called Dad so he could correct him.

Think about it–the only way this child could be sure of contact with his father was getting in trouble! Is it very surprising that the rule-breaking continued?

That happened 20 years ago . . . and 10 years ago, and five years ago, and earlier this year. It happens all the time. While most kids consider scolding and lectures a punishment, for some ANY attention, even negative attention, is a powerful reward. It shouts out, “I care.”

We can raise children on autopilot, or we can put more effort into this critically important job and respond more thoughtfully. Slowing down helps you consider how best to respond to the craziness, just as it did when you were a rookie on the streets. Take your time—your kid isn’t armed and he can’t run far.

Ask yourself, “Am I rewarding what I want to reward?” and “Am I punishing something I don’t want to punish?” You have to be consistent for your behavior-shaping to work–but if you are, your entire family will reap the reward of a calmer, happier home life.