017 – Chapter 3, Part 3

A Strategy for Constructive Discipline (continued)

Provide Advantages for Responsible Behavior

During a typical day parents are likely to reward their child’s appropriate behaviors numerous times, often without any thought or even awareness. By consciously thinking about the processes involved and by arranging their responses to their children accordingly, parents can bring to bear the full power of positive reinforcement as they teach their children to behave in the way the parents consider appropriate. In the process children learn to internalize those patterns of behavior so that they become their own. That is the basis for our approach:

Consistently responding positively to appropriate behaviors while consistently withholding response to inappropriate behaviors produces lasting, internal maturation in our children’s behavior.

Thus, we have worked our way back to the fundamental principle expressed previously and underlying our strategy for raising happy, responsible children:

The Principle of Positive Reinforcement – probably the most widely demonstrated and fully accepted principle in all of psychology, education, and related fields of study – states that:

Any behavior that occurs and is followed by reinforcement is more likely to occur again.

I was introduced to this principle early in graduate school and could cite many studies on which it was based. Still, only when I began working with families using this approach did I fully appreciate the principle’s profound implications and its full power. What follows is intended to assure you won’t experience a similarly delayed understanding

First, the principle refers to any behavior, whether the behavior is appropriate and desirable or just the opposite. We all were taught that “practice makes perfect,” but as you strive to guide your children to responsible behavior, keep this more accurate notion in mind: “practice makes permanent.” As the Principle of Positive Reinforcement states, any behavior that is practiced enough will become a habit, and whether it is “perfect” depends entirely upon how the behavior is viewed. That is, the principle is neutral with respect to the type of behavior so that literally any behavior is covered, even when you may not realize that the process is operating.

You are talking to a friend on the telephone, fully engrossed in an enjoyable conversation, unaware that your little girl across the room is drawing on the wall with crayons. Meanwhile, she is watching you, equally unaware that your responses have nothing to do with her and she may well be reinforced for drawing on the wall simply by hearing your laughter at your friend’s comments.

Here, unrelated to any intention on your part, by observing your amusement your child’s behavior is directly reinforced, so that she is more likely to repeat the behavior than if she had not seen your smiles. Further, even when you are aware of what is happening, it is possible to unintentionally reinforce a behavior, sometimes to your own dismay.

As I discussed their concerns with his parents, a small boy explored my office, which is typical behavior for children in a new setting. Just as we three adults were laughing at the father’s funny comment, we heard the sound of ripping paper. Still smiling, we all turned to the sound to discover the boy tearing a page from one of my favorite books. Despite ourselves and absolutely unintentionally, at that moment our smiles directly reinforced the behavior of tearing pages out of books.

Since any and all behavior is subject to the principle, it is important that you consciously avoid inadvertently reinforcing behaviors you consider inappropriate for your children. To the extent possible, ignore behavior you would like to eliminate and reinforce behavior that you would like to encourage.

Second, the behavior must actually occur. Parents often are discouraged when they consider all the times their kids have resisted certain expected behaviors. Based on their experience that they can never get their children to do what they want, they are left wondering how this whole idea can help. Fortunately, being aware of all elements of the principle provides means of overcoming this concern.

Third, the behavior must be reinforced, which means that what follows must be positive and meaningful to the child in order for a behavior to become more likely. For example, a trip to an amusement park might seem like an effective reward but for a child who isn’t interested, the offer does not provide any reinforcement value.


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