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The Art of Positive Reinforcement

May 8, 2009 | by Sarah Chana Radcliffe, M.Ed., C.Psych.Assoc.

What you praise and criticize is what you get. So be careful!

Warm fuzzies, also
known in the 1960s as "positive strokes," is something that parents who want to
raise emotionally healthy children cannot do without.

Warm fuzzies come in
verbal and non-verbal forms. Verbal warm fuzzies are words that feel good to
children; non-verbal warm fuzzies are good-feeling actions.

As we saw previously,
smiles, tender touches, gifts and friendly play are some of the non-verbal good
stuff that children appreciate.The verbal fuzzies are praise, positive
programming and emotional coaching.


Praise is a most
important parenting tool. It's better than punishment any day because it has
more consistent, predictable positive results without any significant negative
side-effects.Punishment, on the other hand, sometimes works and sometimes
doesn't and it almost always involves a heavy cost (which we'll examine in
detail later).

Kids love praise. They like to hear when they're on track, doing the right thing.

Most importantly, kids
love praise. They like to hear when they're on track, doing the right thing.They
like to know you're pleased and proud. Your praise keeps them coming back for
more -- which is why they behave so much better when you reinforce their
behavior with praise. What you praise is what you get.

Unfortunately, what
you criticize is also what you get, so be careful!

The rule is: whatever
you attend to is what you get. If you reinforce good behavior (whatever is
desirable in your eyes) by giving praise and other kinds of positive attention,
children will deliver more good behavior. Find the good behavior and comment on
it constantly!A typical morning conversation could sound like this:

"Oh look how quickly you've gotten out of bed! Good for you! And I see you've got your
clothes on already -- amazing! Nice job of making the bed today. Keep up the good
work -- I'll see you in the kitchen in a few minutes ... Whoah -- how did you get
down here so fast? You're really moving this morning! I bet you'll be ready long
before that bus comes! I see you got your bowl all ready ... here, let me help you
with the milk."

Keep praise specific
-- tell your child exactly what you like. Avoid global statements like "you're a
good boy/girl." These are not only useless (because they don't give the child
enough information about what he/she needs to do) but they can also be dangerous,
leading the child to fear that mistakes and human failings equate with

Keep praise pure -- don't mix it in with negative statements. Avoid using "but" as in: "I like the
way you're using a fork but I don't like the way you're eating with your mouth

The word "but" is an eraser, wiping out the praise part of your statement.

The word "but" is an
eraser, wiping out the praise part of your statement. If absolutely necessary,
make several separate statements, perhaps, "I like the way you're using a fork!That's
the way to eat!If you also chew with your mouth closed, you'll be Mr. Good
Manners himself!"

Remember -- our most
powerful parenting tool is specific praise.Use it liberally.It doesn't cause
swelled heads or any other infirmities.It does cause children to do more of
what you want them to do!

Warning: Although you
can use as much praise as you want, always use an equal amount of unconditional
positive attention.If the only positive attention a child receives is
conditional (he earned it because of his good behavior), he'll actually feel

Make sure at least
half of his positive attention is given freely, no strings attached, no
qualifying conditions required.

In other words, tell
him and show him that you love him for no reason at all!Half of your
hugs, kisses, gifts and kind words can be given because he deserves them (he
did something right) and half of this stuff must be given as he walks by or
otherwise "exists" in your presence.


When praising a child,
we can go just one step further in order to exponentially increase our
parenting power.That step is "positive programming."

You're a hypnotist.
During your children's first 10 or 15 years, they are in a sort of a trance
and are extremely impressionable. You hypnotize your children.Tell them they're
stupid and they'll think they are.Tell them they're selfish, and they'll absorb
it completely.

Whatever you say, goes -- deep down, where it will haunt your children for the rest of their lives.

Whatever you say goes. Deep
into their little unconscious minds. Deep, deep down, where it will haunt them
for the rest of their lives.

Of course, we can use
our power to hypnotize in a positive way as well. We can help our children leave
childhood believing that they're clever, responsible, helpful, kind,
courageous, considerate, prompt, strong, determined, patient, organized and
otherwise wonderful. It all depends on what we say.

Make a list of the
words you'd like to be able to use to describe your child when she's grown. Now,
be sure to use those words daily in the time that you are raising her! This is
"positive programming."

There is only one
trick: the words must be attached to specific praise.Otherwise, they just
aren't believable.When attached to praise for a behavior which the child knows
he is doing, the character label becomes believable and therefore becomes
absorbed into the child's self-concept. And positive self-concept leads to
positive behavior.

Here is a half a dozen
examples of what positive programming might sound like:

    "Thank you for
    taking out the garbage.That was very helpful of you.

    "Wow!You figured
    out how to fix the vacuum yourself? That was really clever of you!

    "You're ready for
    school already? You're really organized this morning!"

    "I see you gave
    your sister the doll. That was very kind of you."

    "You children have
    waited a long time for the doctor this morning. You've been very patient."

    "I like the way you
    listened right away. That was very cooperative."

Once absorbed into the
self-concept, positive programming informs future behavior:

"I'm a helpful
person, so I'll help clear the table."

"I'm a smart guy, so I can figure out this math problem."

"I'm a good dresser, so I can put together a great outfit."

"I'm an organized girl, so I'll be able to straighten out this mess in no time."

programming works on spouses too!

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