‘Positive Reinforcement’ is one of those things that sounds great in theory before you have kids. It makes so much sense. It seems reasonable and sane to ‘catch your child doing something good and praise him or her for it.’ Because if you want good behavior, you need to reward good behavior. Isn’t that nice? Sure.
In practice, in our house anyway, I find this isn’t useful advice. Don’t get me wrong, I still think children should know you appreciate good behavior, but that whole catching them in the act thing has never worked for me. I must be doing something distinctly wrong, but I have never gotten the whole positive reinforcement thing to work at all. I find it does help if later I tell them after the fact that I’m proud of them for being good. If we get off to school peacefully I’ll thank them for it at the end of the day, or if they are especially nice to each other I’ll mention it as I put them to bed that nothing makes me happier than seeing them be good to each other.
But if I bring it up while it’s happening? I ruin it. For instance, I love hearing Quinn sing in the car. It’s completely adorable when he’s belting out some song in that sweet little voice. However, if I so much as glance at him and smile in the rearview mirror while he’s doing it, he gets huffy and stops. If Mona is doing some new dance move and I tell her to keep it up, it’s over. Done, finished, kaput. Most of the things my kids do that I want to encourage, they don’t want to be intruded upon while they are doing them. It breaks the mood and destroys the flow and pulls them out of what was happening. Even if they are playing well together and I point out how nice that is to see, it’s as if I drew attention to something fragile and they become overly aware of it and it breaks. Those little bursts of positive reinforcement almost act as an overjustification effect, and sucks the purity of those moments right out of them. I’ve learned when they are good to just let them be. Goodness is its own reward. They don’t need me butting in.
Another way I’ve failed at this concept is with dispensing little treats or prizes. I had an idea about a year ago where I was trying to influence the girls’ behavior in a specific area. I went out and bought all these little ‘pocket pet’ toys they were interested in, and lined them up on the top of my doorframe. There were about a dozen of these toys which I told the girls I could add to anytime. The deal was that there would be no punishment for when they did the behavior we didn’t want, but when they did the right thing they could select a toy. Sounded great in my head. But the problem was every day that they didn’t earn a toy they acted like they were being punished. They pined for the toys on the doorframe and bemoaned the fact that they hadn’t earned one every time they came in my room, to the point where I had to make up other reasons to award the toys and be done with it.
Sticker charts have always been the same way. Not that Mona would ever have any interest in a sticker chart, but whenever we tried one with Aden she would get obsessed with the stickers she wasn’t getting. When she was first learning to use the potty the sticker chart we tried along with that was a disaster. She cried when she didn’t get one to the point where there was nothing positive about that kind of reinforcement and I let it go.
Lucky for me my children tend to be very good in general. There have been some impressive exceptions, but for the most part my kids are polite and nice and I don’t have much trouble taking them out anywhere. We were in Target a few months back, having lunch together, and my kids were taking turns telling jokes. I find the easiest way to get some kind of conversation going during a meal with my kids that avoids any bickering is to pick a theme and take turns. For instance, they like math problems, so I’ll give Aden something to multiply, and once she’s figured that out I give Mona some simple addition, and then for Quinn’s turn he just has to tell me the next number when I stop counting (so if I get up to 12 and stop he shouts “13!”), and we go around and around like this until everyone is done eating. I don’t know why this makes them so happy, but it does. Anyway, they also like to go around in order telling jokes. Aden is old enough she can actually tell a few real jokes, but Mona repeats things she’s heard in random order and they don’t make sense, and Quinn just keeps saying, “Knock knock!” and laughing until his turn is done.
They were happily going through their joke rotation while eating mac and cheese, and when I got up to get some napkins an old woman eating lunch at the next table said to me admiringly, “Your children are so well behaved!” I smiled and said something like ‘Oh, thank you, I like them.’ And then she added, “You must be very strict.” That took me by surprise, because as much as my kids would be the first to tell you I am not always a barrel of laughs as a mom, ‘strict’ is not a word I would apply to my parenting style. I think I responded with, ‘Oh, not really, they’re just usually good,’ but I’ve thought about that word ‘strict’ ever since. I suppose there is nothing wrong with strict. To the degree it implies ‘predictable’ or ‘consistent’ I can get on board with it, but there is an element of ‘strict’ that strikes me as potentially unreasonable or inflexible leaning toward unfair that rubs me the wrong way. I found it interesting that from the woman of an older generation it was meant as a compliment but that it struck me in a different way.
In any case, I’m grateful that my children are so nice. They drive me up a wall sometimes and they are certainly not perfect, but considering how little handle I have on any actual parenting techniques for shaping behavior I lucked out that they don’t need much help in the niceness area. All I can do is love them and point out right and wrong when I see it and appreciate the sweetness while it lasts. (I’m hearing tales from the parents of teens that I better enjoy them now before they morph into surly willful creatures that will make me wonder why I thought being a parent was a good idea in the first place.)