Reinforcement vs. Punishment: What They Are & 12 Examples
How do you get a kid to do something? The eternal question that plagues parents. That's mostly because there's no "perfect" way to encourage a kid's behavior that works in every circumstance for every kid. Every situation creates a new challenge that parents must evaluate and decide how best to move forward. And it's not always easy to decipher what to do in the moment.
Well, according to many parenting experts, there are two major ways to encourage certain kinds of behavior. There's reinforcing good actions and discouraging (punishing or disciplining) negative ones. Both can be used to help kids learn the proper way to act. "Everything has a place in parenting when done intentionally," says Aliza W. Pressman, Ph.D., co-founder of the Mount Sinai Parenting Center. Here's what to know about both.
What is reinforcement?
"Reinforcement is anything that increases the likelihood that a person will exhibit the same behavior again in the future," says licensed psychologist Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., CNS. "You are aiming to increase a desired behavior such as speaking politely, doing chores, playing nicely with siblings, and so on."
And chances are you're likely doing this already in some capacity: You praise your kid for tidying up after themselves, you compliment them after getting good grades in school, you take them out for a treat after hitting a milestone or doing well in an extracurricular. As Pressman tells us, it's simply "giving kids attention for a certain behavior."
However, reinforcement can backfire, if done incorrectly. And this comes back to promoting intrinsic motivation, versus extrinsic. Ideally you want your kids to develop some intrinsic motivation—which is what happens when people do something because they find it rewarding or see the benefit in doing it rather than doing it for an external reason. And getting kids to that point does take some work (and it will not happen for every single kind of task—not even adults have intrinsic motivation for all that we do!). The problem arises when parents lean on reinforcement too much and kids start to value external rewards for behaviors that they should really require self-regulation.
Pressman notes, however, that you really should think about what sort of things you want to inspire this outcome: "Every parent has different goals and priorities, and that's not for us to judge, but you should think about the things you want your kids to value and help reinforce positive behaviors around that," she says. "But for things like simple habits that you need them to adopt, like potty training? You can use thoughtful external rewards for that, as eventually it will just become part of their daily lives and routines."
Examples of reinforcement to rely on:
"In general, reinforcers that are positively focused work best, and that do not rely on giving the child 'treats' or other tangible items," says Beurkens. "It's most helpful to focus on behaviors you want to see more of and to utilize reinforcers like positive praise, spending time together, and helping the child feel confident and proud about the things they are doing." Some examples:
- Joining them in a new hobby so you are spending quality time with them as they develop a new skill.
- Rewarding them for doing something around the house—when they were not asked to do so.
- Helping them with homework and complimenting them on a job well done to instill confidence.
- Letting teens have more freedom when they demonstrate they can adhere to rules, curfews, and so on.
Examples of reinforcement to rethink:
"When used too frequently, reinforcement like giving candy, money, video game time, etc., can backfire and create a situation where kids think they have to get something in order to do what they should be doing," says Beurkens. "It can also create dependence on external rewards, which is not beneficial for development and growth toward the intrinsic motivation necessary for independence as adults."
Bad reinforcement can also mean things like succumbing to tantrums, notes Pressman, as you are giving attention to undesirable actions.
- Giving kids extravagant rewards for completing standard chores around the house that need to be done.
- Only complimenting them after the fact or when they've done well at something (like a test), not encouraging them during the process of them succeeding (like when they are studying hard for said test).
- If a child throws a fit because they want candy, and then you give them that candy, it teaches them that getting upset is a valuable way to get a reward.
What is punishment?
Punishment and discipline are actions taken to discourage undesired actions. "It's anything that reduces the likelihood that a behavior will occur again. You are aiming to reduce or stop undesirable behaviors such as hitting siblings, leaving dirty dishes around the house, or so on," says Beurkens.
And while you may think you want to focus your teaching style on positive reinforcement (it has a better ring to it, no?), punishment and discipline certainly have a place in child-rearing as kids need to learn that poor actions have consequences. However, Pressman notes, these work best when they are logical and easy for the kid to process rather than arbitrary or fear-based.
Examples of punishment to rely on:
"Good punishment" is essentially just discipline, notes Pressman, or what you are doing when you are teaching kids the acceptable range of behaviors that is expected of them, inspire tools for problem-solving, and make good decisions about behavior. Discipline also sets consistent boundaries, which are a valuable teaching tool for kids. "When kids have consistent boundaries set—like, for example, bedtimes, curfews, chores—they are better able to understand what they are supposed to be doing," says Pressman, noting that then they can better understand consequences when they don't meet these.
- When a child is acting out, you can send them to a calm corner where they can better process their emotions with helpful tools, resources, and care when they ask for it—rather than an isolated and lonely timeout.
- As noted earlier, rely on logical consequences: If a kid tosses a controller in frustration at a video game and breaks it, a logical punishment is to say that perhaps the kid isn't ready for the game yet and take it away for a while.
- When you discipline behavior—not feelings. A child may act out when they are feeling frustrated, and you can scold the actions they took while they were upset, but you should also look into those feelings with the kid to get to the root of them. They will learn that they are allowed to have their emotions, but they are not always allowed to act on them.
Examples of punishment to rethink:
Kids can't learn or grow when they are stressed. When you are punishing them in an abrupt or reactionary manner, they likely will be in this mindset. "They are having a stress response to the punishment, not learning from discipline," says Pressman.
Beurkens agrees: "It also can lead to heightened negative emotions, breakdown of the parent-child relationship, and a lack of improvement in behavior overall. Punishment does nothing to teach the child what to do instead, which is also problematic."
- Punishing arbitrary behavior that has not been established as negative, like getting angry at a child for staying up late if a consistent bedtime routine hasn't already been established.
- Isolation techniques that don't allow for conversations about why a kid shouldn't act a certain way.
Overall, you can encourage proper outcomes with a little give and take: Reinforce good behavior and discipline bad. There are, of course, appropriate times to do both of these things and times when it can go the wrong way. Thus, it's important to think critically about how you use these parenting strategies.
Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.