Rewarding Desirable or Effective Behaviors

The word discipline usually connotes strategies to reduce or eliminate undesirable behaviors. However, more successful child-rearing systems use procedures to both increase desirable behaviors and decrease undesirable behaviors. Eliminating undesirable behavior without having a strategy to stimulate more desirable behavior generally is not effective. The most critical part of discipline involves helping children learn behaviors that meet parental expectations, are effective in promoting positive social relationships, and help them develop a sense of self-discipline that leads to positive self-esteem. Behaviors that the parents value and want to encourage need to be identified by the parents and understood by their children.

Many desirable behavioral patterns emerge as part of the child’s normal development, and the role of adults is to notice these behaviors and provide positive attention to strengthen and refine them. Other desirable behaviors are not part of a child’s natural repertoire and need to be taught, such as sharing, good manners, empathy, study habits, and behaving according to principles despite the fact that immediate rewards for other behaviors (eg, lying or stealing) may be present. These behaviors must be taught to children through modeling by parents and shaping skills through parental attention and encouragement. It is much easier to stop undesired behaviors than to develop new, effective behaviors. Therefore, parents must identify the positive behaviors and skills that they want for their children and make a concerted effort to teach and strengthen these behaviors.

Strategies for parents and other caregivers that help children learn positive behaviors include:
providing regular positive attention, sometimes called special time (opportunities to communicate positively are important for children of all ages);
listening carefully to children and helping them learn to use words to express their feelings;
providing children with opportunities to make choices whenever appropriate options exist and then helping them learn to evaluate the potential consequences of their choice;
reinforcing emerging desirable behaviors with frequent praise and ignoring trivial misdeeds; and
modeling orderly, predictable behavior, respectful communication, and collaborative conflict resolution strategies.10

Such strategies have several potential benefits: the desired behavior is more likely to become internalized, the newly learned behavior will be a foundation for other desirable behaviors, and the emotional environment in the family will be more positive, pleasant, and supportive.


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