Which Is Better: Positive Or Negative Reinforcement? | Hard Choices & Parenting.

Parenting is a tricky business. On one hand, you love your child more than life itself while on the other hand, you can’t let them become a spoiled kid; on one hand, you wish no harm would come to them, while on the other, they refuse to learn with just praise and rewards.

In all honesty, parenting is easier said than done. There is a whole walking, talking and breathing part of you just running around and causing destruction and you’re faced with that very simple but equally haunting question: How to make this kid an efficient human?

B.F Skinner, a famous psychologist, proposed his theory of the explanation of behavior and the causes for motivation. It is known as Operant Conditioning or the Reinforcement Theory of Motivation.

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Reinforcement Theory Of Motivation

B. F. Skinner’s Reinforcement Theory is based off Thorndike’s Law of Effect, which basically states that an individual is likely to repeat actions which bring forward positive consequences, and likely to not repeat actions which bring forward negative consequences.

The theory involves two factors: Reinforcement and Punishment.

Reinforcement is that factor which is used to reinforce, or in other words, make the individual more likely to repeat a behavior. Its taken in positive regards like rewards. These reinforcements can be substantial as well as psychological, like money, appreciation, gifts, praise, etc.

There are two further types of Reinforcement: Positive and Negative Reinforcement.

Positive Reinforcement is the first type. In this type of reinforcement, on the performance of a desirable behavior, the individual is given something desirable. For example: An employee leads a team efficiently into success and she is rewarded with high praise by their boss.

On the other hand, Negative Reinforcement is the type of reinforcement where on the performance of a desirable behavior, something undesirable is taken away from the individual. For example: Only one student shows up for a test so then they are exempted from doing a heavy assignment. Negative Reinforcement does not mean Punishment; the positive and negative is simply in terms of adding and subtracting tasks.

The second factor in the Reinforcement Theory is Punishment. Punishment is that tool which is used to eradicate or have the individual less likely to repeat an undesirable behavior. This is taken entirely in its negative terms, i.e. the consequences one has to face after the performance of an unwanted behavior.

There are two types of Punishment: Positive and Negative Punishment.

Positive Punishment is when at the performance of an undesirable behavior, the individual is given something undesirable. For example: An employee doesn’t turn in an assignment on time and so they are made to work unpaid overtime.

On the other hand, Negative Punishment is when at the performance of an unwanted behavior, something desirable is taken away from the individual. For example: Students don’t turn in their homework and so their teacher takes away half of their break time.

Reinforcement Vs. Punishment, Which Is Better?

When it comes to parenting, a parent struggles daily with disciplining their child into being a functional adult. From the day they are born till they come of age (and even after that), this struggle remains. So looking at the above theory and the topic of parenting, one begs the question: Which provides better results, reinforcement or punishment?

In truth, both these elements on their own only provide temporary discipline and results. On their own, they are weak tools of discipline. If you only use Reinforcement, i.e. on good performance, you reward the person and in case of bad performance, you deliver no action, then the desirable behavior will only be displayed for a temporary period of time, because whenever they feel like “acting out”, they will as they know that there will be no negative consequences. As for using only Punishment, i.e. Punishing the individual in the case of unwanted behavior and giving no reaction in the case of wanted behavior, then it will also work only for a temporary time because it will teach the individual tough love; here they aren’t receiving some basic human needs which are rewards and praises. This will weaken their resolve to act good and might even result in rebellious behavior.

In essence, both the elements combined give a long lasting and in more ways than one, guaranteed results. Your child will be motivated to to display desirable behaviors and will fish for the rewards, and when the novelty of the rewards starts to fade, they will still display desirable behavior as they will be motivated to avoid the punishment.

The best approach for your kids when it comes to parenting is Reinforcement and Punishment both.

Growing Up Stages, Parenting And Reinforcement Theory

The Reinforcement Theory is pretty simple and self-explanatory. Regardless, here is how you can apply it to your kids in their different stages of growing up.

Infancy (Birth to 18 Months)

In this stage, Reinforcement is used quite less as opposed to the other stages, since the child is too young to understand logic and create the action and consequences relationship very well, in this stage is more about giving the child a base to grow up, is when you as a parent start explaining why he has to use a 3 in 1 booster seat every time he gets in the car, when you start explaining why he has to eat his meals, when he starts to see that misbehavior has its penalties . However, it can be used in instances like playing their favorite poem while feeding them their baby food, etc.

Childhood (18 Months to 13 Years)

This is the Golden Age of the child. Most of their major life decisions are influences by the teachings in this era. Here Reinforcement can and should be used the most. For example, not giving them any attention when the toddler screams if they don’t get what they want; taking away a child’s playtime if they refuse to do their homework; denying their dessert if they do not finish their food, etc.

Adolescence (13 Years to 20 Years)

This is the most emotionally strong stage of an individual. Here, major decisions are made through their emotions. Reinforcement Theory should be used in this stage quite a lot to prevent any rash decisions made by the child. For example: Grounding them if they stop taking their school seriously; rewarding them with praise and cash for being good kids and staying with the right company, etc.

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