What's the Best Way to Steer Kids Toward Good Behavior? Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

It’s a question that reader Carl is grappling with:

Carl and his son

I know it’s been a [week] since the last note in your parenting discussion, but I have a three-year-old son, and something he did earlier today made me wonder about how to positively reinforce a particular behavior. I know from first-hand experience that positive reinforcement works. It’s easy enough to apply the technique when he does something I want him to do like letting me change him from his pajamas into clothes in the morning before nursery school without kicking and screaming, but what about when it comes to something I don’t want him to do?

He likes throwing things—toys, pillows, books, whatever. It doesn’t seem like he’s doing it out of frustration or anger, but just because sometimes it’s fun to throw things. I understand where he’s coming from, but how do I positively reinforce a behavior when the behavior I want to reinforce consists of not doing something impulsive?

I’m not a parent yet, so if any readers with young kids have good advice for Carl, let us know. Perhaps he can glean some wisdom from this piece by Elissa Strauss, who writes about parenthood for Slate. She is “having a hard time buying” the theory of positive reinforcement advanced by Alan Kazdin, whose interview with Olga spurred this discussion thread. Strauss talked to some childhood psychologists, including Ross Greene:

Greene agrees with Kazdin that parents should avoid punishing bad behavior, though takes it one step further and says they should avoid praising desired behavior as well. Both responses are “cut from the same bolt of cloth” and incapable of fixing any underlying problems, he says, since children “habituate to punishments and satiate to rewards.”

Instead, parents should create what he calls “collaborative partnerships” with their children, in which they help the child develop the skills they need to overcome their behavioral issues. “We need to shift the role of the caregiver from a behavior modifier to a problem solver,” Greene said. “You can teach your kids so many things when you are not tied to using rewards or punishments.”

Of course, kids might not always feel like collaborating. The same can be said for parents, who, while hopefully more emotionally mature than their offspring, can still lose it sometimes. For those moments, I was happy to learn, taking a time-out for everyone can be the best choice. “Parents get tired of talking and get impatient and lose emotional sobriety too,” said Carl Pickhardt, a writer and child psychologist. “Part of the purpose of the time-out is for the parent to cool down, gather your wits together, and think about what you want your kid to learn from the encounter.”

Here’s some more advice from an expert, Atlantic reader Jim Elliott:

As a parent and as a developmental services professional (former special education teacher and social worker, currently regulating developmental services on behalf of the state of California), I have some thoughts on parenting and discipline:

Positive reinforcement alone is not useful, in my opinion. Kids need discipline, by which I mean a consistent set of rules that are consistently and fairly enforced. Responses should be proportional to the actual incident that occurred. We save timeouts for hitting or disobeying. If you are a consistently involved and attentive parent, you will find that a tone change is sufficient for many instances.

Positive reinforcement is a behavioral theory that had a lot of traction back in the early oughts in special ed. My response then, as now, is “No, they need to know when something affects someone else negatively.” As a parent a decade later, I find there’s not a lot of cultural acceptance of disciplining others’ kids, so mere social pressure isn’t going to work for you. And you want to address those problems before they become a social issue at school.

In my experience, school is an avenue for discovering social dynamics. So, while not all children become bullies, they are all inclined to group-selection, ostracism, and discovering their power over other people. For example, my wife (a speech therapist) has a simple rule in forming her social skills instruction groups: no uneven numbers; someone always gets left out otherwise.

“Negative reinforcement” exists if that’s the only reinforcement you give, because at that point attention is the point. Kids are thirsty to discover cause-and-effect and know their place in the world. Absent attention and positive reinforcement, they’ll lap up the negative reinforcement. Discipline isn’t negative reinforcement. Denying someone your attention is only powerful if you give them your attention normally.

Your child says something hurtful to you and you deny them the love and interaction you usually give them? That’s powerful discipline. It’s not negative attention. Somehow, the idea of negative attention became this idea that punishment and scolding were bad. That’s just wrong.