Reinforce the positive or punish the negative?
Let’s start with the most basic fact of parenthood, children need guidance, and they are going to do things they are not supposed to do and not do things they are supposed to do. Social science researchers have been studying this issue for quite some time and it has been clearly demonstrated through that research that punishment doesn’t work and positive reinforcement does. So knowing this, why does it still feel so difficult sometimes to reward behaviors we expect rather than punishing behaviors we find unacceptable?
One big influence for me, and others of my generation, is that punishment was a part of our childhood and most of us believe it helped to keep us in line. Another big influence is ego. Ego says, “Why should I reward you for telling the truth when you know that lying is wrong?” But how can we ignore the research that so clearly demonstrates that punishment is not the best way to change behavior? And what about the psychological impact of punishment on our children?
It is my personal belief that there must be room for both philosophies. Positive reinforcement should be the goal but I also believe there are some behaviors that need to be punished. The challenge is to know when to apply each philosophy. As a parent who wants the best for his children, I have to accept that if I want to help my child correct unacceptable behavior, I will have more success with a philosophy of positive reinforcement than one of punishment. But, I must also accept that I am not a perfect parent, and there will be times I will feel the need to punish. I choose to believe that how I process my decision with my child is more important than the decision itself.