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The Art  of Positive Reinforcement

The Art of Positive Reinforcement

What you praise and criticize is what you get. So be careful!


Warm fuzzies, also known in the 1960s as "positive strokes," is something that parents who want to raise emotionally healthy children cannot do without.

Warm fuzzies come in verbal and non-verbal forms. Verbal warm fuzzies are words that feel good to children; non-verbal warm fuzzies are good-feeling actions.

As we saw previously, smiles, tender touches, gifts and friendly play are some of the non-verbal good stuff that children appreciate.The verbal fuzzies are praise, positive programming and emotional coaching.


Praise is a most important parenting tool. It's better than punishment any day because it has more consistent, predictable positive results without any significant negative side-effects.Punishment, on the other hand, sometimes works and sometimes doesn't and it almost always involves a heavy cost (which we'll examine in detail later).

Kids love praise. They like to hear when they're on track, doing the right thing.

Most importantly, kids love praise. They like to hear when they're on track, doing the right thing.They like to know you're pleased and proud. Your praise keeps them coming back for more -- which is why they behave so much better when you reinforce their behavior with praise. What you praise is what you get.

Unfortunately, what you criticize is also what you get, so be careful!

The rule is: whatever you attend to is what you get. If you reinforce good behavior (whatever is desirable in your eyes) by giving praise and other kinds of positive attention, children will deliver more good behavior. Find the good behavior and comment on it constantly!A typical morning conversation could sound like this:

"Oh look how quickly you've gotten out of bed! Good for you! And I see you've got your clothes on already -- amazing! Nice job of making the bed today. Keep up the good work -- I'll see you in the kitchen in a few minutes ... Whoah -- how did you get down here so fast? You're really moving this morning! I bet you'll be ready long before that bus comes! I see you got your bowl all ready ... here, let me help you with the milk."

Keep praise specific -- tell your child exactly what you like. Avoid global statements like "you're a good boy/girl." These are not only useless (because they don't give the child enough information about what he/she needs to do) but they can also be dangerous, leading the child to fear that mistakes and human failings equate with "badness."

Keep praise pure -- don't mix it in with negative statements. Avoid using "but" as in: "I like the way you're using a fork but I don't like the way you're eating with your mouth open."

The word "but" is an eraser, wiping out the praise part of your statement.

The word "but" is an eraser, wiping out the praise part of your statement. If absolutely necessary, make several separate statements, perhaps, "I like the way you're using a fork!That's the way to eat!If you also chew with your mouth closed, you'll be Mr. Good Manners himself!"

Remember -- our most powerful parenting tool is specific praise.Use it liberally.It doesn't cause swelled heads or any other infirmities.It does cause children to do more of what you want them to do!

Warning: Although you can use as much praise as you want, always use an equal amount of unconditional positive attention.If the only positive attention a child receives is conditional (he earned it because of his good behavior), he'll actually feel unloved!

Make sure at least half of his positive attention is given freely, no strings attached, no qualifying conditions required.

In other words, tell him and show him that you love him for no reason at all!Half of your hugs, kisses, gifts and kind words can be given because he deserves them (he did something right) and half of this stuff must be given as he walks by or otherwise "exists" in your presence.


When praising a child, we can go just one step further in order to exponentially increase our parenting power.That step is "positive programming."

You're a hypnotist. During your children's first 10 or 15 years, they are in a sort of a trance and are extremely impressionable. You hypnotize your children.Tell them they're stupid and they'll think they are.Tell them they're selfish, and they'll absorb it completely.

Whatever you say, goes -- deep down, where it will haunt your children for the rest of their lives.

Whatever you say goes. Deep into their little unconscious minds. Deep, deep down, where it will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Of course, we can use our power to hypnotize in a positive way as well. We can help our children leave childhood believing that they're clever, responsible, helpful, kind, courageous, considerate, prompt, strong, determined, patient, organized and otherwise wonderful. It all depends on what we say.

Make a list of the words you'd like to be able to use to describe your child when she's grown. Now, be sure to use those words daily in the time that you are raising her! This is "positive programming."

There is only one trick: the words must be attached to specific praise.Otherwise, they just aren't believable.When attached to praise for a behavior which the child knows he is doing, the character label becomes believable and therefore becomes absorbed into the child's self-concept. And positive self-concept leads to positive behavior.

Here is a half a dozen examples of what positive programming might sound like:

    "Thank you for taking out the garbage.That was very helpful of you.

    "Wow!You figured out how to fix the vacuum yourself? That was really clever of you!

    "You're ready for school already? You're really organized this morning!"

    "I see you gave your sister the doll. That was very kind of you."

    "You children have waited a long time for the doctor this morning. You've been very patient."

    "I like the way you listened right away. That was very cooperative."

Once absorbed into the self-concept, positive programming informs future behavior:

"I'm a helpful person, so I'll help clear the table."

"I'm a smart guy, so I can figure out this math problem."

"I'm a good dresser, so I can put together a great outfit."

"I'm an organized girl, so I'll be able to straighten out this mess in no time."

P.S.Positive programming works on spouses too!

February 12, 2000

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Visitor Comments: 13

(11) FATIMA MARIE CLORES, November 24, 2011 3:47 AM

it is very helpful as teacher

(10) Tag Along Adventure, January 7, 2011 3:18 AM

Very true!

As a special education teacher and mother, I've used token economies (a form of positive reinforcement) successfully with my son and my students for years. I even develop a system for parents who want to reinforce positive behavior in their children:

(9) Linda, September 1, 2010 3:28 AM

3 reasons to avoid positive reinforcement parenting

1. It doens't work. When your boss says "great job on that report," does it make you feel good? Sure. You were making a deliberate effort to do a good job and expected to be rewarded for it. But how about if your boss says "good job filling out your time card this week," or "good job paying attention at the meeting," or "I'm proud of you for not playing Solitaire too much today." Sounds kind of condescending doesn't it? YOu don't need science to tell you that telling a lazy person, "thanks for doing work," is not going to make him more inclined to do work. How would praising a stingy kid for sharing, or a messy kid for cleaning up be any different? 2. It's bad influence. Wouldn't it make more sense to encourage your kid to share their toys, be patient, and be organized on their own will, rather than do these things to please you or get some reward for it? If you train them to expect rewards for everything, then you will only succeed in turning your kids the kind of person who won't share, help others or put in effort unless they have something to gain from it. 3. It's hurtful. How would you feel if someone hovered over you labeling everything you did as good or bad? Even if you only say good things, a positive judgment is still a judgment. When someone tells you "I'm proud of you for doing X," could one also not insinuate "I will not be proud of you if you do not do X," or even "You need to do X to make me proud"...? If you constantly praise your kids for being smart and getting good grades, then you may be surprised that they won't come to you for help if they are struggling with their classes. A friend of mine went for years never telling her mother she had a learning disability because she was afraid her mother wouldn't love her anymore if she found out she "wasn't smart." Whether you intend it or not, constant judgment, positive or negative, communicates that your acceptance of someone is conditional.

Anonymous, January 8, 2013 10:33 PM

oh geeeeeeezzzz., i truly hope you didn't have children

omg....are you serious? you have totally missed the point.

Anonymous, April 25, 2013 2:07 AM


I also hope you don't have kids....positive reinforcement should come naturally to parents. I also think you missed the point. You're talking about adults being praised like a child? This was about children......positive reinforcement for children. It's not judgment. Children need positive reinforce.

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