When you were expecting your child, you probably read every parenting book you could get your hands on. You listened to the podcasts, you took notes, you made a plan—you were ready. Of course, once your bundle of joy arrived, parenting became a little more complicated than any book could have prepared you for.
One of those complications? A concept called positive and negative reinforcement.
As your child grows, one of the biggest challenges you’ll face is how to handle disciplinary issues. With that in mind, we’ve put together this guide to answer your questions about positive and negative reinforcement as a disciplinary method, what the drawbacks are, and how it compares to conscious parenting.
What Is Positive Reinforcement?
Positive and negative reinforcement are part of a theory by psychologist B.F. Skinner.1 Skinner’s research tells us that our behaviors are shaped by various events in the world around us. When something happens after we behave a certain way, we may choose to continue behaving that way—or not—depending on the results.
If something good happens after a certain behavior, we’re likely to repeat that behavior. This is called positive reinforcement. Over time, the good things that happen after we behave a certain way can make us want to keep behaving that way.2
Positive reinforcement can take many shapes:
- Giving your child extra screen time after completing their homework
- Buying a new toy if a child behaves well at a family event
- Treating a child to a cookie after completing a chore
Essentially, positive reinforcement theory boils down to doing something a child wants in order to keep seeing the behavior that you want.
What Is Negative Reinforcement?
As the flip side of positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement is often assumed to be punishment. Actually, negative reinforcement is when you take away something negative or unpleasant when someone behaves the way you want.3 It sounds confusing, but it’s a method we’ve probably all used at some point in our lives without knowing it.
The screaming meltdown in the toy aisle that doesn’t stop until you buy the desired toy? That’s a Skinner-worthy example of negative reinforcement. Once the desired behavior is elicited (the toy is handed over), the unpleasant stimulus (the tantrum) is removed.
Parents often use negative reinforcement by lifting a restriction after a child cooperates—think, “You can have your phone back once you clean your room.”4
The theory behind negative reinforcement operates on one assumption—if you stop doing that thing I don’t want you to do, you’ll get something you want.
Punishment vs Reinforcement
As positive and negative reinforcement exist, so do positive and negative punishment. The purpose of reinforcement is to reinforce the desired behavior, while the purpose of punishment is to reduce the likelihood that an undesired behavior will occur or continue. In short, reinforcement increases target behavior and punishment decreases undesired behavior.
Adding an aversive stimulus to discourage a particular behavior is known as positive punishment. An example would be giving a child detention for constantly talking in class. The undesired behavior is the child talking in class, and detention acts as the positive punishment. Nothing is being taken from the child, but an aversive stimulus (detention) is added.
On the other hand, removing a pleasant stimulus to discourage a particular behavior is known as negative punishment. An example would be a child losing access to video games for a week due to falling grades. The undesired behavior is the child’s grades falling due to them spending too much time with the pleasant stimulus, which are video games in this example.
Why You Should Avoid Positive and Negative Reinforcement
Does it feel a little cold and clinical to view your child’s behavior this way? Critics of disciplining via operant conditioning would certainly agree.
Both positive and negative reinforcement work by teaching children to do things because they have to do them, either for a reward or to remove a restriction. This doesn’t help children feel that there’s an intrinsic reward to behaviors like sharing or accomplishing a task. In fact, some studies suggest that using extrinsic rewards and punishments results in a decrease in internal motivation.5
There are other drawbacks to operant conditioning-based compliance:
- Requires constant surveillance – Especially in the case of negative reinforcement, you must monitor behavior constantly. You must be present to enforce the consequence, and reinforcement must be consistent to be effective.4
- Doesn’t teach self-control – If a child is only learning to carry out a behavior to earn a reward or avoid punishment, they may end up lacking self-regulation skills.5
- Can damage self-esteem – If you mistakenly perceive a behavior problem as willful disobedience when it is actually rooted in another problem, using reinforcement can cause more harm. By telling a child their behavior could be corrected if they only tried harder, they can begin to form a negative view of themselves as incompetent or lazy.5
- Can damage trust – If your child knows that their behavior issue isn’t deliberate, but you treat it as if it is, the disconnect can build a barrier in your relationship and create a lack of trust.5>/sup>
Conscious Parenting: An Intentional Alternative
An alternative to positive and negative reinforcement that’s gaining momentum in child development circles is conscious parenting. Conscious parenting is a mindful and healthy parenting approach built around the idea of managing your own behavior before your children’s.5
Parents choosing conscious parenting work on addressing their own familial challenges and unconscious beliefs to allow their children room to find their own identity.6
The root of conscious parenting is compassion. Be compassionate to both yourself and your child. You are both trying hard, and you each have your own unique struggles. When you start from a place of compassion, conscious parenting can flow naturally.
A few key steps to keep in mind when putting conscious parenting into action:6
- Avoid reacting from surface feelings like anger and irritation
- Pause to mindfully identify the true emotion underneath, such as fear or feelings of loneliness
- Approach your child’s behavior from a place of calmness and respect
A key aspect of conscious parenting is the concept of “natural consequences.” When you think of consequences, you may imagine time-outs and saying no to desserts or screen time. These are consequences designed to punish a child for an action. Natural consequences, however, are just that—natural.
Natural consequences show the child the result of their actions outside of parental influence. It demonstrates that the child will be the one to experience the effects of their actions, and they have the agency to control what happens.7
Let’s flip the script and see what happens when your child understands they have a say over natural consequences:
If your child is ready to go to the movies in a timely manner, your family has time to enjoy the previews, peruse your favorite movie snacks, and maybe even play an arcade game or two before the film starts.
If your child sticks to their nightly routine, they’ll wake up fresh and energized for the day
If your child plays respectfully and kindly with their friend, that friend will want to schedule more playdates.
If your child does their homework, they’ll be able to show off a stellar report card at the end of the semester.
The important thing to note is to always let your child know they can ask you for help, whether they’re having a hard time finding their shoes in time for the movie or understanding a math problem. Additionally, practicing affirmations for kids can help them feel more confident in their behaviors.
Parent Mindfully With Slumberkins
Disciplining your child is one of the most challenging aspects of parenthood. But it shouldn’t make the relationship with your child feel like you’re on opposing teams locked in a power struggle. When you find the method that works for you and your child, it should deepen your understanding of your child as an individual with unique strengths and weaknesses.
At Slumberkins, we believe that conscious parenting helps children express their emotions instead of acting out. Our early childhood social-emotional learning kits help children tackle big emotions. Resources like our conflict resolution for kids and growth mindset collections can help caregivers build a bond that supports appropriate behavior without relying on surface-level fixes like positive and negative reinforcement.
Find a new way to connect with your child and help them find self-love and growth with Slumberkins.
- Ackerman, Courtney. "12 Examples of Positive Punishment & Negative Reinforcement." Positive Psychology. July 31, 2018. https://positivepsychology.com/positive-punishment/#skinner-positive-punishment
McLeod, Saul. "What Is Operant Conditioning and How Does It Work?" Simply Psychology. Updated 2018. https://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html
- "Negative Reinforcement." APA Dictionary of Psychology. https://dictionary.apa.org/negative-reinforcement
"The High Price of Negative Reinforcement." Reaching Milestones. 2 June, 2013. https://reachingmilestones.com/the-high-price-of-negative-reinforcement/
"Negative Reinforcement." ASD Toddler Initiative. https://asdtoddler.fpg.unc.edu/reinforcement/implementation-steps/negative-reinforcement.html
- Zapata, Kimberly. "All About Conscious Parenting and How To Use It In Everyday Life." Parents. 12 January, 2022. https://www.parents.com/parenting/better-parenting/style/what-is-conscious-parenting-how-to-use-it
- "Natural and Logical Consequences." Special Connections. https://specialconnections.ku.edu/behavior_plans/classroom_and_group_support/teacher_tools/natural_and_logical_consequences
- "Negative reinforcement isn’t always the best way to deal with challenging behavior." NAMI California. https://namica.org/blog/negative-reinforcement-isnt-always-best-way-deal-challenging-behavior/