Does Sparing the Rod Really Spoil the Child?

Updated: Sep 4, 2019

Studies have proven that using positive reinforcement to condition behavior through operant conditioning is far more effective than any other disciplinary method. At the risk of sounding new-age-y, positive reinforcement has power. To all of my “spankings solve all the problems in the world” parents out there, I apologize in advance if this offends you. The good news is that this is not just me; this is backed up by numerous psychological studies of positive vs negative reinforcement. To be clear, some basic definitions are in order.

According to, distinctions need to be made between positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishment.

1. Positive Reinforcement: a desirable stimulus is introduced to encourage the behavior

2. Negative Reinforcement: an undesirable stimulus is removed to encourage the behavior

3. Positive punishment: an undesirable stimulus is introduced to discourage the behavior

4. Negative punishment: (extinction): a desirable stimulus is removed to discourage the behavior

The keys to remember this:

- Positive (+) always adds a stimulus

- Negative (-) always removes a stimulus

- Reinforcers always encourage the behavior

- Punishments always discourage the behavior

Positive Reinforcement:

Your child does a behavior that you like and want to encourage, like cleaning their room without prompting or eating their veggies without complaining or doing their homework as soon as they get home from school. You respond by acknowledging the behavior that you want to encourage, praising them for it, and providing an award for the behavior.

This could be a piece of candy, a token in a jar that gets built up to a big reward, or an extra 20 minutes of TV time. Your reward will encourage the behavior to continue.

This can also have an incorrect application. Your child is throwing a tantrum in the grocery store, so you promise him candy so he will stop. It may have worked in the moment, but the next time you are in the grocery store, he is going to throw a tantrum because he knows you will give him candy to make him stop. This is positively reinforcing an undesirable behavior.

Negative Reinforcement:

Your child is trying to do their homework but is distracted by the sound of the TV in the living room. To help your child focus on their schoolwork you turn off the TV. You have removed a distracting stimulus to encourage your child to focus. This is negatively reinforcing a desirable behavior, because you took something undesirable (distraction) away to encourage the focused behavior.

This can also be done incorrectly. Your child has a class project due tomorrow, but he has procrastinated until now. Hit with the panic of the workload and timeframe, he begs you for help with the project. If you help him, you have just taken away that sense of panic, and the next time he has a project, he will procrastinate again because he knows you will come to his rescue. You have just reinforced undesirable behavior (procrastination) by taking away an undesirable stimulus (panic).

Positive Punishment:

Your child throws a temper tantrum when he is told to share his toys with his little brother. You respond by spanking your child. This is positive punishment. You have added the stimulus of the pain from the spanking to the situation to discourage the temper tantrums.

Negative Punishment:

Your child throws a temper tantrum for the same reason above. You respond by taking the toy away. This is negative punishment. You have taken a stimulus away (toys) from the situation to discourage him from throwing the tantrums.

There are several keys to remember in using positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishment.

1. Timing: the reinforcer or the punisher should occur as soon as possible after the behavior it is connected to. The more time lapses in between the behavior and the reinforcer or punishment, the weaker the connection will be and the more likely the possibility of accidentally reinforcing an undesirable behavior that happened since the target behavior.

2. Be picky: If you reinforce everything, it will lose its power. Choose a few target behaviors- a few that you want to encourage and a few you want to discourage. Reinforce those desirable behaviors and punish those undesirable behaviors. Of course, any outstanding desirable or undesirable behaviors should not be ignored but try to focus your behavior conditioning.

3. Praise has power: The first few times you are trying to encourage a behavior, be generous with the rewards. Use candy or extra electronics time or use a rewards jar to build up tokens to a bigger award through consistent good behavior. However, the reward should always be accompanied by verbal praise, because the idea is to wean the child off of the rewards and let the praise be enough. Studies have shown that external awards, after a certain point, only have short-term effects and actually undermine their own intrinsic motivation. Believe it or not, verbal praise goes a long way in encouraging desirable behavior. And the more time your child is spending doing things that are desirable, the less time he is spending doing things that are undesirable.

4. Positive Reinforcement works best without negative feedback on younger children because their brains can process positive feedback better than negative feedback. Negative feedback works better with older kids because they have the higher brain function to process what they did wrong and where they need to correct the behavior.

118 views0 comments