Negative Reinforcement is Not All Bad

Negative reinforcement gets a bad wrap! But it’s a real world tool for discouraging bad choices, and when it’s used in the right way and in the right circumstances, it can be a powerful teacher.

Take the transportation system for example. If you get caught speeding, you’ll get a ticket. You’ll have to go to court, pay a fine and get points on your license, which will stay there for a few years, alerting insurance companies that you’re not exactly a safe driver. As a result, your insurance premiums will go up. Get caught often enough, and you’ll lose your license. Car insurance is very important, but don´t forget to get some Private Medical Insurance for those unexpected accidents.

That’s negative reinforcement, and it works!

Some friends of ours have traveled to countries that don’t have these kinds of laws, and they say those are scary places. One friend told me she was shocked there weren’t more dead bodies strewn about. She did see one person who was fatally struck while she was there, but the driving experience was so terrifying, she was amazed that the streets weren’t lined with dead bodies.

I’ll take our negative reinforcing traffic system any day over one where anything goes.

Negative reinforcement doesn’t have to be harsh or unforgiving or hurtful. It’s simply a tool to help teach the concept that bad choices equal bad results.

BAD CHOICES = BAD RESULTS

Negative reinforcement can be useful for helping kids to break bad habits, to get through challenging situations, to correct a repeated bad behavior (bickering, forgetfulness, poor grades), for dishonoring or disrespecting someone…basically, for most bad choices.

An Element of Fun

But it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. As Mary Poppins says, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” Even bad results can have a fun twist.

For example, when we want to help our kids break a bad habit (nail biting, nose picking — it happens!), we tell our kids to do 10 push ups every time they’re caught doing the bad thing. It works! And they get in shape in the process.

A friend of ours shared something with us a few years that has stopped our kids from mistreating furniture (standing on chairs, jumping on beds, sitting on tables, etc.). If you mistreat the furniture, you lose furniture privileges for the day. That means the kid eats meals that day picnic-style (the table and chairs are furniture, you know), does homework and watches TV from the comfort of the floor and camps out with a sleeping bag and pillow on their bedroom carpet (the bed is furniture too).

The Punishment Fits the Crime

Okay, so we don’t really mean punishment. We’re not our kids’ punishers or jailers. We’re their mentors and teachers. What we really mean here is that a negative consequence should relate to the misbehavior. For example, if your child didn’t do his homework, it doesn’t make sense to say he can’t go out to dinner with grandma and grandpa tomorrow night. First of all, that punishes grandma and grandpa.

Whenever possible, try not to punish other people for your child’s offense (birthday parties, family get-togethers). Sometimes it can’t be avoided, and in that case, you can talk about how their actions affect other people too.

But in the homework scenario, grandma and grandpa didn’t have anything to do with the child not doing his homework. The truth is, he was too wrapped up in a TV show and was too tired by the time it was over. A better consequence would be to ban television until homework is done and inspected.

If the reason he didn’t do his homework had been that he was disorganized and forgot what was due, you wouldn’t take away TV. Instead, you might sit down with his teacher and enlist her help. Ask her to look over his homework before he leaves to make sure it’s accurate, and check his backpack to make sure he has everything he needs to complete the assignments. Then sign his homework list so you know she’s checked it.

When he gets home, have him show you the list and the supplies and together you can make a plan for the evening to make sure he finishes everything. Then have him bring you each thing as it’s done, so you can check it and make sure he puts it neatly where it belongs. At the end of the night, sign his homework list to show the teacher you’re on board. This is a negative reinforcement in the sense that it’s a loss of independence, but it’s also a preventative method as it helps him become more organized so he doesn’t miss future homework assignments.

At risk of sounding like a broken record, the goal of correction is to teach – not to punish!

Time Out

Time out is a negative reinforcement, and when it’s done well, it can be useful. For a complete description of how to do a successful time out, check out the post on Willful Disobedience. Time outs are helpful for young kids (preschool and elementary age) who are having a bad attitude (it can help them cool off and reset their mood) or arguing with you (it’s a reminder that mom is the boss and it’s their job to obey without arguing). But if you are using Time Out as your consequence for Willful Disobedience, it should never be used for any other misbehavior.

Here are some other ideas for negative reinforcements:

Behavior

Negative Reinforcement

Nail biting

Do 10 push ups

Interrupting

Serve others (to recognize that you’re not more important than others)

Complaining

Lose upcoming fun occasions (movies, sleepover, etc.)

Incomplete chores

Loss of privilege (i.e. TV or computer time)

Not doing homework

Loss of freedom (i.e. not able to go to a friend’s house, or loss of cell phone or ipod)

Mistreating a sibling

Do the sibling’s chores that day

Jumping on Furniture

Loss of furniture privilege

Check back tomorrow. We’re going to talk about Positive Reinforcement.

Jenni Stahlmann

Jenni Stahlmann is the mom of seven kids (ages 1 to 20) including one on the autism spectrum. She and her husband Matthew homeschool the whole brood. Jenni has been a journalist for more than 20 years, having covered government, business and family issues for a wide range of magazines and newspapers. Currently, she and Jody co-host a weekly syndicated radio show, write a weekly newspaper column and freelance articles and speak at churches, political groups and homeschool conventions about parenting on purpose.

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Jenni Stahlmann is the mom of seven kids (ages 1 to 20) including one on the autism spectrum. She and her husband Matthew homeschool the whole brood. Jenni has been a journalist for more than 20 years, having covered government, business and family issues for a wide range of magazines and newspapers. Currently, she and Jody co-host a weekly syndicated radio show, write a weekly newspaper column and freelance articles and speak at churches, political groups and homeschool conventions about parenting on purpose.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

3 thoughts on “Negative Reinforcement is Not All Bad

  1. Hmmm, it looks like punishment and negative reinforcement are being confused here.

    Punishment is giving a child bad consequences for doing something bad. It tries to discourage bad behavior. For example, making a child do 10 push-ups for nail-biting.

    Negative reinforcement is removing something bad for doing something good. It tries to encourage good behavior. For example, letting a child stay up past bed time for an hour because they cleaned their room.

    • Thank you, Anthony! We appreciate the correction, and we will certainly change how we present it in the future. Be blessed.

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