Why use praise and rewards?

Andrew Scherbarth, Ph.D., BCBA-D, Licensed Psychologist

This is a question that I hear all the time, “Why use praise and rewards? My child is supposed to behave well because it’s the right thing to do. I’m not going to bribe them to do the right thing.” It’s a great question. The simple answer is you aren’t bribing them to do the right thing; you are focusing on the behaviors you want your child to do instead of the behaviors you don’t want them to do.

By praising and rewarding good behavior, the child becomes motivated to engage in the desired behavior. By rewarding the positive you get a higher pay off – the child wants to receive praise or rewards, and is more likely to do what is desired. For instance, you tell a joke to get a laugh. Just think- if people stopped laughing at your jokes, would you want to keep telling them?  The behavioral principle of reinforcement can be explained like this: behaviors that obtain what someone wants or needs will grow strong and continue being used, but behaviors that don’t pay off will stop since they are not effective or efficient.

You are trying to motivate desirable behaviors including behaviors like: asking nicely for items, sharing toys with siblings and peers, complying with directions the first time the direction is given, independently getting dressed and doing chores, and even being a good sport whether your child is winning or losing.

Motivating desirable behaviors doesn’t necessarily mean providing your child with money, items, or expensive things to do. A parent’s attention is one of the most valuable things that a parent has to offer. A kind word, a listening ear when your child has had a difficult day at school, hugs and excitement, spending time playing with the G.I. Joes/Legos/Barbies that are already in their room — all of these are forms of attention that really show your child that you care. Likewise, a child’s toys and activities also make great rewards. You don’t have to buy new games or new toys, but rather make sure that toys come out when work gets done. Let’s say that your child likes video games. If doing homework means that your child can play their video game, but refusal to do homework means no video games or other privileges, then your child will be much more likely to at least attempt to get things done. Sure, you may have to help with homework or whatever else that you ask them to do. However, your child will do these desirable behaviors as long as those behaviors pays off more than the problem behaviors, and the task isn’t too far beyond your child’s ability.

Given that behavior either pays off and continues, or doesn’t and drops off, parents have a choice. Would you rather pay off the desirable behaviors or the undesirable behaviors?

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