Updated: Mar 19, 2019
Although being a parent presents many joyful moments, it also comes with many challenges. Arguably, the toughest and most stressful task of becoming a parent is in relation to the disciplining of children. Parents are responsible for meeting the physical and emotional needs of their children as well as raising moral, independent, contributing members of society. As such, part of our parental duty entails teaching and guiding our kids to be the best possible version of themselves.
There is no such thing as a “perfect child”; all children misbehave at some point for various reasons. Discipline can be understood as a method to support children in learning appropriate behaviors and making the right choices. We're all acquainted with terminology related to discipline such as punishment, consequences, positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, time out, etc. However, not many of us really know the difference between these disciplinary techniques or even how to effectively apply these different disciplinary (behaviour modification) strategies. In order to effectively apply these strategies, we need to first understand what these various terminologies mean.
The Principle of Punishment
If a punishment is given to someone immediately after a specific action, that person is unlikely to do the same action again in the future. In other words, punishment is used to reduce the frequency of behaviour.
Time-out is commonly used as a punishment for younger children aged 3-8 years. Time-out entails removing the child from the situation to an isolated area, where he/she can no longer participate in the activity. Use of time-out can be effective, if it is used consistently, the time frame is short, and a discussion is immediately followed. The general rule is 1 minute per year. For example, if your child is 4 years old, the time-out should be 4 minutes long. It's important to discuss with your child the reason behind the use of the time out and what behaviour you would like to see instead. Afterwards, encourage your child to try again.
Another common example of punishment is criticism and ridicule of inappropriate behaviour. The problem with criticism and ridicule is that the child does not learn what behaviours are desired and appropriate, rather it leads the child to become discouraged and give up in his or her attempt to develop appropriate behaviour.
Although punishment can reduce the frequency of an undesired behaviour, it does not generate any new behaviours. It can be very tempting as a parent to rely heavily on punishment when we want our child to stop a specific behaviour because it works fast. However, when we are overly reliant on punishment, we are overlooking the positive behaviours that our children display, which should be positively reinforced.
The Principle of Positive Reinforcement
If a positive reinforcer is immediately given to someone after a specific action/behaviour, that person is more likely to engage in the same behaviour/action again in the future. Simply put, positive reinforcement increases the frequency of behaviour.
Rewards are an important type of reinforcer, which can be used to motivate children to achieve a specific goal or establish a new behaviour. Extra screen time, going to the park, having a friend over, earning money, are some examples of incentives that can be given to your child as a reward when he/she achieves the expected goal or behaviour. Each child is unique, so you need to find an incentive that appeals to your child. With older children, you can negotiate the reward options.
A powerful, but often disregarded, positive reinforcer is praise. In order for the praise to be effective, the praise should be specific, enthusiastic, and immediate. Vague praises, such as "good job" are not as powerful as specific praise. Specific praise identifies the behaviour that you liked. An example of a specific praise, "I like how you put your toys away after you finished playing with them. Thank you!" Affectionate gestures, such as hugs and kisses, can also be effective if timed right.
Rewards and praise given together are far more effective than using only one reinforcer on its own. Praise and affectionate gestures should be given to your child for minor accomplishments when encouraging and developing a new behaviour and skill. Rewards should be given when your child achieves a specific goal.
The Principle of Negative Reinforcement
The removal of aversive stimuli directly following the occurrence of a response will strengthen the probability of that response occurring again. In other words, negative reinforcement increases the frequency of behaviour through the removal of something negative. For example, when a parent nags their child to do their homework and the child obeys, the nagging ceases. The elimination of the nagging immediately after the child does what was asked is what reinforced the child to comply and do the homework.
In short, a behaviour/action can increase in frequency through positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement; and punishment is used to decrease the frequency of behaviour. However, positive reinforcement is more effective and less strenuous.
Ultimately, whatever discipline technique you decide to utilize, your foremost objective should be the safety and wellbeing of your child. It is our moral responsibility to ensure that our parenting techniques are safe, positive, and nurturing.
This topic will be continued in a future post, where guidelines for the effective use of rules and consequences will be discussed.
Martin, G., & Pear, J. (2015). Behavior modification: What it is and how to do it (9th edition.). Boston: Pearson Education.
Webster-Stratton, C. (2005). The Incredible Years: A Trouble-Shooting Guide for Parents of Children Aged 2-8 Years. U.S.A.: Incredible Years.