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By Caroline Fleck

Three Questions Every Parent Should Be Able to Answer

Uploaded: Mar 15, 2015

1. What's the difference between a reward and a reinforcement?
2. Is punishment or reinforcement more effective at changing mild behavioral problems (bickering with siblings, completing chores); what about changing extreme behavioral problems (truancy, violent temper tantrums)?
3. What makes for an effective punishment?

These questions have been extensively researched, which isn't surprising given that most parents will wrestle with at least some of them at some point.

What's surprising is how little this research has made it into the mainstream. Or rather, the extent to which untested theories about parenting have overshadowed behavioral research resulting in frustrated parents and often noncompliant children.

So what does research on parenting suggest? I'll cut to the chase - this post, and the answers to the above questions, are a pitch for positive reinforcement. In short, positive reinforcement should be at the foundation of any parenting or behavioral change program. Why? Because parenting interventions based on positive reinforcement have been shown to be the most effective at actually increasing behavioral compliance and prosocial behavior in children (for a review of this research see Kazdin, 2009).

The success of any parenting approach is in large part determined by one's understanding of the answers to the questions at the beginning of this post. So let's review them:

1. How is reinforcement different from rewards?

A reinforcement is a consequence that increases the probability of a behavior occurring. In contrast, a reward is something that is given or received following a behavior. Rewards and reinforcements are thus not the same thing as rewards don't necessarily increase the behavior they follow. I might get a reward (a trophy) for submitting blog posts weekly. If, however, the trophy doesn't have an effect on my turning in blog posts on time (doesn't increase the frequency of my behavior), then it wasn't technically a reinforcement.

This means that you might be rewarding behavior without necessarily reinforcing it. Let's say you praise your adolescent for dressing appropriately for school. If your praise is not as valuable as the social approval they receive for dressing provocatively, your praise isn't going to change their behavior. The social approval is what's reinforcing for them. Your praise, in this example, might be rewarding, but it is not reinforcing.

Again, successful parenting approaches rely heavily on positive reinforcements, not simply rewards. If your rewards aren't changing behavior, then they are not reinforcing, or reinforcing enough, and need to be modified.

2. Is punishment or reinforcement more effective?

Punishments alone are not likely to improve behavioral problems, and might even increase them in the long-term, particularly if the punishments you use model aggressive behavior (Patterson et al., 1992). This goes for mild and extreme behavioral problems alike.

Punishments may appear to be very effective in the short-term - they can get your kids to immediately shape up. In the long-term, however, punishments alone fail to teach children what they should be doing. In other words, they don't provide them with any of the skills or feedback necessary to promote pro-social behavior. Relying exclusively on punishments to modify behavior can also result in undesirable side-effects such as increased aggression, strained parent-child relationships, and mental health problems.

3. What makes for an effective punishment?

In order for punishments to be effective, they should be secondary to positive reinforcement. In other words, they should not be the primary method of controlling or changing behavior.

Most research-based parenting approaches use punishments that rely on the removal of positive reinforcers (a time-out) for short periods of time (several minutes). Generally speaking, evidence does not support the view that increasing the intensity or duration of a punishment increases its effectiveness (Benjet & Kazdin, 2003; Gershoff, 2002). If privileges are revoked for misbehavior, the revocation should be for a short period of time (generally not longer than a day). Again, the emphasis is on attending to what the child is doing right, rather than over focusing on what they are doing wrong. If "good" behavior is rare, the aim should be to effusively reinforce glimpses of that behavior, while decreasing the intensity, duration, and frequency of punishments for misbehavior.

So there you have it, the three things you need to know to parent more effectively. There are obviously a range of strategies and techniques that expand upon this information. Things like the rate at which you reinforce behavior, how you reinforce it (praise, privileges, physical affection), and how you communicate expectations will all have an affect on your success. For folks interested in learning more about these strategies, I highly recommend the following book .