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Parenting

The Power of Positive Reinforcement: Why It Trumps Punishment Every Time

Updated
May 9, 2024
Table of Contents

    Behavior modification is an important part of parenting. At some point, all parents will need to teach their kids to change negative behaviors or engage in positive ones. For example, you might want to reduce negative behaviors like screaming at the store, or you might want to help a child engage in a particular behavior, like brushing their teeth.

    Some parents will have to target unwanted behavior more often than others. Negative behaviors could be a reflex for some kids, and some of them (like running around in the classroom) might not be on purpose. Regardless, learning about how reinforcement works is integral. 

    There are different types of reinforcement techniques for behavior change. The most common techniques you’ll hear about are punishment and positive reinforcement. 

    So, when it comes to reducing negative behavior and promoting positive behavior in kids, which is better: Punishment vs. positive reinforcement?

    This article will go over punishment vs. positive reinforcement, how they're used, and the long-term effects of each. We'll also discuss Joon as an evidence-based tool for reinforcement help.

    Understanding Behavior Modification

    The goal of behavior modification is almost always to change negative behavior or promote a desirable one. A great way to explain behavior modification is to first give an overview of operant conditioning, which refers to the idea that someone can be conditioned to adopt a desired behavior or stop using an undesired behavior as a result of consequences or rewards.

    Operant conditioning is a term first used by B.F. Skinner in the 20th century. There are four types of operant conditioning: Positive punishment, negative punishment, positive reinforcement, and negative reinforcement. We still use these techniques today, whether in therapies like applied behavior analysis, everyday parenting, or school environments.

    However, we now know that the behavior modification technique you choose makes a difference. The right behavior modification techniques will help you change or promote a target behavior more, whereas other behavioral techniques can have an unintended, unpleasant outcome and may only work short-term.

    Punishment in Behavior Modification

    Some forms of punishment are largely acknowledged as harmful. Physical punishment, specifically, should never be used and is incredibly harmful to children long-term. After decades of research, the American Psychological Association (APA) asserts that aversive stimulus in the form of physical punishments like spanking is not only ineffective but harmful long-term.

    Other forms of punishment are more of a gray area for many parents. There are examples of punishment techniques modern parents might use more often.

    Examples of punishment techniques

    In behavior modification, you'll hear about two types of punishment: Positive punishment and negative punishment. In this instance, positive doesn’t mean “good,” and negative doesn’t mean “bad.” Instead, positive punishment refers to adding something, whereas negative punishment refers to taking something away

    Examples of negative punishment include taking away a child’s access to their cell phone or not letting them attend a friend’s sleepover. 

    An example of positive punishment is adding extra chores to a child’s chore list.

    Pros and cons of punishment in behavior modification

    As with most other things in life, punishment isn’t all or nothing. Here are some pros and cons to consider.

    • Pros
      • If administered correctly, punishment can sometimes reduce bad behavior. 
      • Can be a learning experience if the punishment is reasonable and makes sense to the child. If you do use punishment, it is ideal that you connect it to the behavior you wish to change, and you must explain it to the child.
    • Cons
      • Some forms of punishment can be detrimental to a child’s physical and mental health. 
      • Shaming a child can have negative consequences. Sometimes, parents do not realize that what they say comes off as shaming to the child, so parents may unintentionally shame a child, which could have a negative impact without them even realizing it. 
      • Can promote negative self-perception, fear, and worsened parent-child relationships. 
      • Desirable behavioral changes are often short-term when a child is conditioned through punishment, and they may not develop an internal understanding of why they shouldn't engage in the behavior or learn what they should do instead. 

    If parents do use punishment, it is crucial that positive feedback is also provided for good behavior. Positive reinforcement tends to be more effective, motivating, and easy for kids to understand.

    Positive Reinforcement in Behavior Modification

    Positive reinforcement involves giving a child something they desire to promote a positive outcome. Parents can explain what the reward for a target behavior will be when they ask the child to do something to motivate the child to do it.

    Examples of positive reinforcement techniques

    You may have already used positive reinforcement with your child or children, but not all rewards are equal. Here are some helpful positive reinforcement examples.

    • Verbal praise or affection:
      • Letting a child know that they did a good job. This one is free and always available!
    • Rewards for good behavior:
      • Virtual reward systems like Joon, which are sustainable and effective for children and their parents.
      • Physical reward systems, like reasonable monetary incentives or items (e.g., small toys).
      • Fun, desirable experiences, like going to the park.
      • Token systems for kids.
    • Social benefits:
      • Positive social outcomes might occur for kids when they engage in desired behavior. For example, if a child is kind to other kids, they might notice that other children want to be friends with them.
    • Natural outcomes:
      • Sometimes, a desired behavior will naturally result in a positive outcome. For example, if you notice that you feel better when you drink more water, you might keep doing it.

    Negative reinforcement isn't the same as punishment for bad behavior and isn’t always on par with the outcomes of positive reinforcement. Like negative punishment, negative reinforcement refers to taking something away, but to increase a desirable behavior. 

    For example, not having to do a specific chore could reward a child's good behavior and they may be more likely to do the good behavior in the future. That said, negative reinforcement can be problematic because it could encourage a child to see that chore as a "punishment" later on, which may negatively impact their motivation to complete it moving forward.

    While many desirable behaviors have natural or social positive outcomes for children, kids might not always make the mental connection between the two at first. These advantages will likely come a little bit later. 

    Pros and cons of positive reinforcement in behavior modification

    The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends this approach to behavior modification for kids, citing three major pros of using positive reinforcement. Here are the most common pros and cons of positive reinforcement in behavior modification.

    • Pros:
      • Positive reinforcement is often effective.
      • Can promote self-esteem and good mental health in children.
      • Can help build and sustain a positive parent-child relationship.
    • Cons:
      • Like punishment, the way you provide positive reinforcement matters. Children require clear, verbal communication about why they're receiving a reward, such as a trip to the park or an item. Apps like Joon communicate this for you by rewarding the child when they engage in a certain behavior (e.g., taking out the garbage).
      • Some forms of positive reinforcement can be expensive or unsustainable, so you must be careful about the rewards you choose.

    Largely, any downsides of positive reinforcement depend on how you use it. The key is to choose the right kind of positive reinforcement and to provide it properly. 

    Parents also should not shy away from redirecting a child when necessary. Ideally, you can describe the impact of inappropriate behavior and tell the child what they can do instead (e.g., express themselves through words like, "I feel frustrated"). When they express themselves through words in the future, you might provide positive reinforcement by saying something like, “That was an excellent way to express that!”

    Comparison of Punishment and Positive Reinforcement

    How does punishment fare in comparison to positive reinforcement for parents who want to change a negative behavior or promote a positive one? Research has looked at the effects of both punishment and positive reinforcement on kids, both short-term and long-term, including how both behavioral change techniques can affect children later in adulthood.

    Efficacy

    Punishment is not a sufficient technique when used alone. Rather than encouraging positive behavior or helping kids learn, children may develop a fear of punishment if this is the primary behavior modification technique an adult uses. Think of how a person might avoid getting caught for a crime due to the unpleasant outcome (e.g., jail time) rather than deciding not to do it; this is the same mental process. 

    Positive reinforcement aids motivation and encourages confidence in children, which is integral to their long-term emotional, psychological, and social health. Most people benefit from positive feedback, and children are no different.

    Long-Term Results

    If you want children to continue good behavior in the long term, it is highly recommended that parents use positive reinforcement. Compared to punishment, positive reinforcement works better and is more likely to reduce undesired or "bad" behavior in the future. Positive reinforcement strategies are also associated with mental health benefits.

    Try Joon: Healthy Positive Reinforcement for Kids

    Joon is a behavior improvement app for kids and their families. Geared toward children with ADHD, ODD, Autism, and struggles with undesirable behavior, Joon improves parent-child relationships, encourages self-esteem, and leads to desired behaviors in children. The app provides encouragement for kids, helping them stay focused and on top of their daily tasks.

    The Joon app motivates kids to perform desired behaviors by giving them rewards that allow them to care for a virtual pet once a task, or "quest," is completed. Even better, it's backed by teachers, child psychologists, and related professionals—and the reviews show that kids and families love it.

    Click here to try Joon today.

    Conclusion & Future Directions

    When kids face challenges with frequent negative behavior, it can be difficult for parents. Choosing the right behavior modification technique or strategy can make a difference. Research shows that positive reinforcement strategies work long-term and do not share the risks associated with punishment as a standalone technique to reduce undesired behavior.

    The APA has shared plans to produce resources for parents and professionals that promote positive reinforcement as a desirable technique for behavior change in children. Using strategies like verbal praise and reasonable rewards as incentives is highly recommended in behavior management.

    Using Joon is a great way to implement positive reinforcement strategies because the app is successful, sustainable, and built with today's kids in mind.

    About

    Dr. Joe Raiker, PhD

    Joe Raiker, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who has extensive training and clinical experience in the principles of behavior modification and cognitive restructuring (i.e., CBT). He provides assessment and psychotherapeutic services to patients of all ages, primarily via Telehealth, including treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition to seeing patients, Dr. Raiker also provides Clinical Supervision for Therapy and Assessment Services at our group.

    About

    Dr. Joe Raiker, PhD

    Joe Raiker, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who has extensive training and clinical experience in the principles of behavior modification and cognitive restructuring (i.e., CBT). He provides assessment and psychotherapeutic services to patients of all ages, primarily via Telehealth, including treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition to seeing patients, Dr. Raiker also provides Clinical Supervision for Therapy and Assessment Services at our group.