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Encouraging and Discouraging Behaviors

As a parent, you want your kids to act a certain way, and would like to increase certain behaviors while decreasing others. What has been proven through behavioral research is that reinforcements (rewards) work better than punishments and that a combination of the two is ideal.


An example of a reinforcement or reward would be when a child is getting good grades, they are given a privilege. You are reinforcing the good behavior by ADDING a positive thing. On the other hand, a punishment would be taking away phone privileges on a Friday in response to poor grades (removing something good to decrease an unwanted behavior). For more information on reinforcement and punishment, (what is called conditioning in the Psychology world) check out this website.


Of course, which technique you should use depends on the age of the child. If a young child is screaming and yelling, this might require putting them in a time-out chair, which is something you would struggle to do with a teenager. Providing a combination of punishments with rewards has been shown to have the best results.

Encouraging Better School Performance

Parents frequently come in asking how they can motivate their kids to get better grades, and my response is that you have to teach them about working to get the things they want. What matters to your 14-year-old son will be very different than what you want as a parent (for them to get good grades, get in a good college, and to get a great job). Sometimes it seems unfair to ask them to care about these things, when they are so young, and don’t have the basic understanding of the value of providing for themselves.


The best way to instill this desire to get good grades is to teach them that school is their job. Parents go to work to buy the things that they want, whether it be a new TV, to put food on the table, or simply to pay the mortgage. If they don’t work, the family might not be able to afford the house, car, food, or clothes. Teach them that their job is to go to school while they parents go to work, and therefore it is their job to get good grades. So, parents go to work to afford things for themselves and their children, while children go to school and get good grades to afford privileges. Privileges include things such as phone time, playing games, getting to go out with friends, etc.


Sometimes parents give their kids these privileges without expecting them to earn them by doing chores and getting good grades, but then, the child has no motivation or reason to do these things. As an adult, if you didn’t have to work to provide these things for your family, it’s highly unlikely that most of us would continue to go to our jobs every day. This is just human nature.


We need to recognize that children are humans as well, and to make sure that we don’t have unrealistic expectations about their behavior. This goes for other undesirable behaviors as well. If your child yells and swears at you in response to having to do chores, and then has no consequences for doing so, they will continue this behavior.

The Contract

Something that has been helpful for many clients is writing out a contract. This contract is used to encourage or discourage behaviors by using real-life consequences. Using an example discussed earlier, the contract could say something like: “When grades drop below a C average, basketball privileges will be removed. This means you will not be able to play basketball for the school team.”


Parents should NEVER negotiate an exemption for their children’s bad grades or behavior. This will simply reinforce the bad behavior and teach the child that they do not need to maintain good grades to have privileges. If your child uses their phone to send bad pictures or texts to someone, they lose their phone.


Again, these are real-life consequences for the behaviors they choose to make, which is how real-life actually functions. If an adult gets pulled over repeatedly for speeding, they lose their license. You are showing them how rules, consequences, and privileges work for when they become adults.

Modeling Behaviors

Sometimes parents are concerned that their child is being violent to other children. Typically, this is because the child isn’t getting their way, or another child is doing something they don’t like. Children learn by example, also called modeling, and though it makes many parents uncomfortable, one of the first things that needs to be examined is the parents’ behaviors towards others. When a child acts out, many parents turn to spanking or physical force to correct behavior. Frequently the child is simply modeling this same behavior among their own peers.


The same goes for the language we use. If a parent comes in and calls their child a “little a**hole,” it’s not surprising to later hear complaints that their child is using bad language. This goes back to the previous section on setting expectations for our children that we do not set for ourselves. We are models for our children, and because humans and other animals learn through modeling or imitation, we must carefully choose the behaviors we express. Otherwise, we are sending confusing mixed messages.


Another more recent complaint is that children are on their phones throughout dinner or other times when they should be interacting with others. Again, the parents will sometimes exhibit this same behavior by looking at their phones repeatedly during our sessions. As much as we don’t like to admit it, we need to examine our own behavior before criticizing theirs. People are creatures of habit and sometimes we get stuck in the moment or have a routine for the way we do things, and it is difficult to notice our default behaviors. As an objective, outside observer, I can help identify these habits and help examine if they are healthy or not.


No one ever said parenting is easy! By using reinforcements and punishments, using privileges as “payment”, setting up written contracts, and being a model for the behaviors you would like to see in your child, some of the stress of parenting can be relieved.

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