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Reinforcement Vs. Punishment for Kids

Which should you use to deal with behavioral issues? Reinforcement or punishment?

As they grow, our children learn which behaviors are acceptable and which are not. They learn this through a process of cause and effect.

Here’s an example of how this works: When you touch something hot, it burns and you take your hand away. Then, you remember it burns and you don’t touch the hot item again. This is cause and effect.

The same principle applies to how you teach your child about their actions and behaviors. You either encourage or discourage them to act in certain ways. You do this through a combination of what psychologists refer to as reinforcement and punishment.

The way psychologists define reinforcement and punishment is different than how we might think about these two concepts. According to psychologists:

  1. When you use reinforcement, you encourage your child to repeat a behavior.
  2. When you use punishment, you discourage your child from repeating a behavior.

Key Takeaways

  • Reinforcement encourages a behavior, while punishment discourages a behavior.
  • Positive reinforcement adds something pleasant, and negative reinforcement removes something unpleasant to promote a desired behavior.
  • Positive punishment introduces something unpleasant, and negative punishment removes something pleasant to deter an undesired behavior.
  • A combination of reinforcement and punishment is most effective in shaping a child’s behavior.

What Is Reinforcement?

Reinforcement is the practice of encouraging a particular behavior through the use of encouragement, a response, or deterrent.

Reinforcement takes two forms — positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.

However, keep in mind, the terms negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement are, in this case, psychological terms. That means they do not have the same meaning as you might expect. The positive and negative in this instance do not refer to the quality of the response you use for reinforcement (1).

What Is Positive Reinforcement?

When we add something to a situation to encourage a child’s behavior, this is positive reinforcement. Telling a child “well done” is a form of positive reinforcement, but so is telling your child “that was an awful thing to do.”

This is because you are adding something to the situation. It is not the quality of the response that is referred to as positive. Positive reinforcement doesn’t mean your child will see your response as a good thing or an encouragement.

Examples of Positive Reinforcement for Kids

Example Pleasant Stimulus Desired Behavior
You give your child praise after they have put all of their toys away. Praise. Clearing up the toys.
Your child receives ice cream after finishing their vegetables at dinnertime. Ice Cream. Finishing up all of the vegetables.
When potty training, your child receives a gold star for using the potty. Gold Star. Using the potty.

What Is Negative Reinforcement?

As with the positive, the “negative” in negative reinforcement does not refer to the quality of the reinforcement itself. Instead, negative reinforcement refers to the fact that you remove something from the situation to encourage and reinforce a particular behavior (2).

So, taking away a child’s crayons because they drew on the wall is negative reinforcement.

However, it is also negative reinforcement when a parent stops nagging their child to clean their room. In this case, the knowledge that their parent will stop nagging (the nagging will be removed) if they clean the room, motivates the child to tidy up.

This is negative reinforcement.

Examples of Negative Reinforcement for Kids

So, using the same examples as before, negative reinforcement is:

Example Aversive Stimulus Desired Behavior
Your child cleans their room to stop you from nagging them to do it. Your nagging. To have your child clear up the room.
Your child can get up from the dinner table when they eat their vegetables. Sitting at the dinner table to eat vegetables. That your child will eat all of their vegetables at dinnertime.
Your child does not have to sit on the potty if they go to the toilet. Sitting on the potty. You want your child to use the potty.

Positive Vs. Negative Reinforcement for Kids

To recap, we use reinforcement to encourage a particular behavior. When we use positive reinforcement, we add something to the situation to encourage a behavior.

When we use negative reinforcement, we remove something from the situation to encourage a behavior.

Positive Reinforcement Negative Reinforcement
Example Praising your child for cleaning up their toys. To stop nagging your child to put their toys away.
Stimulus Praise. Nagging.
Behavior Your child clears their toys away. Your child clears their toys away.
Result A tidy room and a child who is motivated to clean again because they know that by clearing their toys away they will receive praise. A tidy room and a child who is motivated to tidy again because they know that by clearing their toys they do not have to listen to nagging.

What Is Punishment?

Punishment is the creation of some form of suffering, unpleasant feeling, or undesirable situation in order to discourage someone from a particular behavior.

The suffering, feeling, or situation does not have to be major. Taking away a child’s spoon to prevent them from flicking food is a punishment.

What Is Positive Punishment?

Positive punishment occurs when you introduce an adverse stimulus to discourage an unwanted behavior (3).

Just as with reinforcement, it is not the quality of the thing you add to the situation that we talk about when using the word “positive”. Instead, a positive punishment is one where something unpleasant is added to the situation to obtain the desired response.

Examples of Positive Punishment for Kids

Example Aversive Stimulus Added Undesired Behavior
A child eats a crayon and gets a bad taste in their mouth. A bad taste in the mouth. Eating crayons.
One child hits another and is shouted at by their parents. Being shouted at by a parent. Hitting another child.
A child refuses to clear away their toys and is spanked. Being spanked. Refusing to clear away their toys.

What Is Negative Punishment?

Negative punishment is taking something away from a situation to obtain the desired behavior.

Examples Of Negative Punishment For Kids

Example Pleasant Stimulus Removed Undesired Behavior
A child chews on their crayons and their parent takes the crayons away. Drawing with the crayons. Eating the crayons.
One child hits another and is sent to sit alone in the corner. Playing with the other children. Hitting another child.
A child refuses to clear away their toys and has their favorite toy taken away. Favorite toy is taken away. Refusing to tidy their room.

Positive Vs. Negative Punishment for Kids

When you apply punishment to a situation, your child learns to avoid the behavior that causes the punishment. Both positive and negative punishment do this.

However, positive punishment introduces something your child does not like to the situation. Negative punishment removes something your child does like from the situation.

Positive Punishment Negative Punishment
Example Spanking a child for not clearing up their room. Taking away a favorite toy for not clearing up their room.
Stimulus Spanking. Removing a favorite toy.
Behavior Not cleaning up. Not cleaning up.
Result The child is motivated to clean their room in the future to avoid receiving another spank. The child is motivated to clean their room in the future to avoid losing their favorite toy.
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Reinforcement Vs. Punishment

Reinforcement is used to encourage a behavior, while punishment is used to discourage a behavior.

If you use only reinforcement, or only punishment to shape your child’s behavior, either technique will become less effective over time. Instead, psychologists have found that a combination of reinforcement and punishment is the most effective in changing behaviors (4).

Method Add / Remove Stimulus Behavior
Positive Reinforcement Add Pleasant Enhance desired
Negative Reinforcement Remove Aversive Enhance desired
Positive Punishment Add Adverse Deter undesired
Negative Punishment Remove Pleasant Deter undesired

A Combination Approach

The best way to encourage good behavior is through a combination of positive reinforcement and negative punishment. This mix, as you will see in the table above, combines to enhance desired and deter undesired behaviors through the use of pleasant stimuli.

However, the occasional use of adverse stimuli is also helpful, depending on the child and situation in question.

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About the Author

Patricia Barnes

Patricia Barnes is a homeschooling mom of 5 who has been featured on Global TV, quoted in Parents magazine, and writes for a variety of websites and publications. Doing her best to keep it together in a life of constant chaos, Patti would describe herself as an eclectic mess maker, lousy crafter, book lover, autism mom, and insomniac.