By Reabetsoe Buys, Counselling Psychologist
Discipline remains one of the topics which evokes many different thoughts and opinions. While each family is open to exploring and using whichever discipline strategies work for them, there are some methods which have been proven to be more effective than others.
‘Traditional’ discipline usually refers to the practice of training children to obey rules and expect punishment if they are not followed. These methods usually use punishment to correct disobedience and misbehaviour. Positive reinforcement, however, is the encouragement of behaviour using positive responses, rewards and motivation. While rewarding a disobedient child may seem like a complete contradiction, positive reinforcement has been proven to be one of the most effective behaviour modification techniques. This is because instead of instilling fear and apprehension, you are focusing on positive behaviours which your child is in control of. This not only yields positive results but also longer lasting changes in behaviour.
Why you should reward good behaviour
As parents, we instinctively reward good behaviour and punish bad behaviour, which works most of the time. However, rewards work better than punishment in changing behaviour, because of the positive emotions which are associated with them. Punishment elicits negative emotions, and these can have dire consequences.
That being said, rewards don’t have to be monetary or involve anything drastic outside of your usual family routine. An example of a reward system is to create a token system in your home. This is why token systems work:
- You’re giving your child points for good behaviour which can be exchanged for a bigger reward once a certain number is reached (e.g. 15 stars equals a special surprise).
- It is easy to implement and can involve almost anything (e.g. getting a star for helping with the tidying up after dinner).
- It leads to immediate gratification as stars are received on the spot for good behaviour.
- Smaller, regular rewards work much better than bigger ones which take longer to achieve.
- Smaller rewards are also more motivating.
- Make sure you encourage your child to take part by explaining what it is about and getting them to set daily goals for themselves
But also remember:
- The rewards must be realistic and achievable for your child based on their age and interests.
- Keep your word and follow through with what you say you will do.
- You cannot take away rewards which have been earned – this is discouraging and can lead to disinterest.
- Reward good habits (e.g. doing things without being told), not just the good outcome .
- There is a big difference between bribing and rewarding good behaviour!
Positive reinforcement and why it is more effective than punishment
This behaviour modification technique promotes good behaviour by focusing on what your child is doing right, rather than on what they are not doing or on what they are doing wrong. This leads to a higher chance of the positive behaviour being internalised and repeated. Remember, not all positive reinforcement involves giving tangible rewards – a lot of it can be encouragement and acknowledgement.
Some examples include:
- Giving your child a high five or a thumbs up when they do something good or right.
- Lots of smiles, hugs and kisses.
- Verbalising to them when they have done something good.
- Talking to another adult about their good behaviour in the presence of your child.
- Avoid focusing on the negative (e.g. I can’t believe you still haven’t picked up your clothes).
- Avoid linking it to your child’s personality (e.g. you’re such a good child because you picked your clothes up off of the floor).
So which behaviours should you be reinforcing?
- Sharing with others (e.g. “Thank you for sharing so nicely with your sister.”).
- Being kind and gentle to siblings and peers.
- Completing tasks without a fuss (e.g. brushing teeth).
- Effort put into doing something hard (e.g. “I’m so proud of you for not giving up easily.”).
- Remembering their manners.
- Practicing something new.
- Responding to a request immediately (e.g. “Thank you for picking up your toys so quickly.”).
When you’re focusing on encouraging desired behaviour, remember that you also have to foster a safe environment, model positive behaviour and give space for your child to communicate what they are going through. Follow through with your promises and apologise when you are wrong, and they will learn to do the same.
If you decide to use punishment:
- Decide, as a family, what the repercussions are for not following the rules.
- Avoid using extreme punishment, which will actually do more damage than good.
- Do not use corporal punishment as this incorrectly communicates that anger and violence are appropriate to resolve issues and communicate frustrations.
- Rather take away privileges (e.g. TV time and devices).
- Under no circumstances should you humiliate or shame your child as this can cause long-lasting emotional distress.
- Make sure you’re aware of your own emotions towards your child’s behaviour – wait until you’re rational if you need to.
- Discuss your reason for punishing them so that they can think about ways to avoid getting into trouble in the future.
- Avoid labelling your child (e.g. “Why are you so mean?”).
At the end of the day, depending on the age of your child, think about methods and strategies which suit your parenting style and your family. However, make sure that they are healthy and will lead to your child developing and maintaining a safe relationship with you as their parent, and with the rest of the family.