Talking with Parents about Positive Reinforcement

Before I head out to climb Mount Sentinel on this gloriously beautiful day in Missoula, I’m posting this short commentary with some ideas on how to talk with parents about positive reinforcement.

More often than not, children’s behavior can be understood in terms of contingencies. In fact, when parents are trying to persuade their children to do something (like chores), children and teens will make their awareness of behavioral contingencies clear with a one-word response: “Why?!”

Children and teenagers are notorious for asking why; they ask why they have to take out the garbage, why they have to be home by midnight, why they can’t go out and drink some beers with their friends, why they can’t experiment with drugs and why they can’t stay home alone when their parents go away for the weekend. It’s important for parents and therapists to be sensitive to children’s questions about why they should or should not engage in particular behaviors. This is because why questions are questions about contingency and motivation. When young clients ask why, they’re trying to understand: “What’s the payoff?” or “What’s the reason?” or “What’s in it for me?” or “How does this fit with our family values?” And, like most adults, they’re interested, to at least some degree, in obtaining external or intrinsic rewards or reinforcement in return for their cooperative behaviors.

Depending on their own values and upbringing, parents may insist children not be bribed to get good grades, complete their chores, or comply with curfew. They may insist that children of this generation are spoiled and too dependent on external rewards and in many ways, these parents are right; children are bombarded with messages about acquisition and materialism. However, complete denial of external motivators and rewards is impossible and ill-advised. The process by which external motivation becomes internal motivation is an important area of psychological research. Very generally, research shows that modest external rewards that convey performance information to children can contribute to the development of intrinsic motivation. In contrast, if rewards are used to control children’s behavior, children may work hard to obtain the reward, but intrinsic interest in the target behavior won’t be developed. Obviously, intrinsic motivation and/or self-reinforcement systems are crucial to the development of self-discipline. Consequently, as counselors, we preach moderate reinforcement strategies designed to provide performance feedback to young clients instead of large-scale reinforcements designed to control child behavior. However, before focusing on reinforcement, we suggest using a behavioral assessment technique: Analyze the existing contingencies.

Parents and children usually focus on different sets of behavioral contingencies. Parents focus on long-term contingencies (e.g., “Doing your homework will help you get good grades and getting good grades is important to getting into college”). In contrast, children and teenagers focus on short-term contingencies (e.g., “I need money for the movie tonight”). Therapists may need to help parents stop lecturing about the great benefits of long-term contingencies because these lectures aren’t typically well-received (Rarely do seven year olds say, “Hey mom, thanks for reminding me to save money for college). Instead, to be developmentally attuned to children and teens requires that parents and therapists be sensitive to short-term contingencies. In a sense, therapists function as developmental translators; they help parents understand the motivational language of children. Defining Bribery

Many parents mistakenly confuse positive reinforcement with bribery. They discount positive reinforcement strategies by saying things like: “Oh, we’ve tried bribery.” Or if the therapist uses an incentive to encourage a teenager to effectively communicate within a session, parents sometimes say: “You just bribed her to get her to do that. She won’t do it without being bribed.” Consequently, when using contingency programs or positive reinforcement techniques with young clients, we explain to parents the difference between bribery and positive reinforcement.

“Before we talk about using positive reinforcement techniques with Jennifer, let’s talk about the difference between positive reinforcement and bribery. Do you know the definition of bribery? (Short pause, usually parents just look at you.) The definition of bribery is to pay someone—in advance—to do something illegal. So if we come up with a plan to pay Jennifer something, whether it’s fruit snacks, a trip to the mall, or a new CD, for consistently completing her homework, it’s not the same as bribery . . . because there’s nothing illegal about Jennifer doing her homework and we won’t be rewarding her in advance.”

All of us, especially adults, respond to positive reinforcement every day. Most of us go to work either because we get paid for it or because we enjoy it. And if we enjoy it, it’s because there’s something about going to work that we perceive as positively reinforcing. So if our goal is to have Jennifer consistently complete her homework, we’ve got to figure out how to make doing homework more rewarding (and less aversive) to her.

In addition to defining bribery, parents usually benefit from hearing how important it is to NOT give children excessively large or excessively frequent reinforcements designed to control behavior. Therefore, we usually inform them of research showing that providing children with too much reinforcement to control behavior can undermine development of intrinsic motivation.

This excerpt is adapted from the book: Tough Kids, Cool Counseling. The Amazon link is here:

Three grandchildren getting some natural positive reinforcement:



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