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There is a lot of buzz about positive reinforcement and parenting. As parents, we are left feeling torn between implementing consequences and having a significant impact on our child’s well-being or self-esteem.  While it is very important to give children the skills and confidence needed to feel secure with themselves, it is also important to set clear boundaries and reinforcement in place.

I have been on the phone with friends and clients with the best intentions. Typically, the following unfolds. Their child comes in requesting or needing something, and the parent responds pleasantly and clearly. A few minutes later, their child interrupts again, with another request or demand, they again respond pleasantly. After the 4th or 5th interruption within just a few minutes there, is a major shift in temper, which goes something like this: “I SAID I KNOW AND TO GO GET_______!”

Is anyone at fault here? Not really. Children need their parents, and we need to respond. With the wave of dialogue surrounding positive parenting, parents are left feeling burnt out thinking they need to give their ALL to their children’s needs and expectations. Add that stress to the current existence of a global pandemic, rampant wildfires, virtual learning, and normal day to day expectations and it’s not a surprise that anxiety, depression and suicide rates are at an all-time high.

Thankfully, people of influence (and our society overall) are beginning to embrace mental health and wellness. Self-care is being embraced as a NEED rather than a want for our own well-being. That being said, we are far from being a society that welcomes mental health issues with open arms. I still have parents fearing that signing their child up for therapy will impact their ability to get into a good college, and don’t want anything on record.

So what does all this have to do with positive reinforcement?  When clear systems are put into place and followed through, with clear boundaries and expectations, parental stress lowers. As parents, we often lose our cool being pulled in a million different directions. But we are actually able to guide our children into being more independent and secure. This is truly what helps them feel confident as adults: feeling the security of being able to make their own choices, to do things on their own and make their own decisions. Giving your child confidence and more autonomy will restore your own security in parenting.

Let’s talk a little bit about what positive reinforcement looks like. It is the act of breaking down goals for your child and allowing them to work towards those goals. This looks different for everyone, and you need only tackle only a few at a time. No more than 3-5 goals for kids ages 3-7 and 5-10 goals for kids 8 and up.

The idea here is for the child to be able to attain and reach their goals. When they are consistently earning reinforcement for 2-3 weeks, you change or add goals and continue to move forward.

The structure of the positive reinforcement system can take different forms. There are a number of app tracking sticker boards and chore lists for children. Personally, I have always felt making a simple chart or checklist at home is most efficient. At the office we recommend the “jar system” frequently. The “jar system” requires taking a jar and giving your child a tangible item to place in the jar when they are on task doing what is needed. When the jar is full, they earn whatever their reinforcement is – for instance a treat, prize or experience.

For children, the reinforcement should be (ideally) something they have control over. So earning choices at family game night, movie night or what they are going to make for dinner are a good fit. While some more intense behavior systems may require a stronger reinforcement, for most children, we try to stay away from those reinforcements. We also use a lot of points systems to earn screen time or video game time so that we are tackling two birds with one stone: limiting screen time and reinforcing positive behaviors.

Often, parents state that they don’t want to “bribe” their children with things they are supposed to be doing. This in theory makes sense. Except our human instinct is to do things that gratify us, and children especially have short-term desires and cannot see the big picture. As parents our job is to shape them into responsible, capable, caring adults. This takes time and step work. Very rarely is a child motivated to engage in chores “because it’s the right thing to do.” However, step by step, with positive praise and statements, they experience the benefit of their work. This is when you can fade back the goal and keep up the verbal praise and statements.

In conclusion, break down goals into steps, reinforce those goals, focus on a mixture of things they can do and things that are new for them, keep consistent and use a visual tool. This, while it seems like a lot of work, will help facilitate their self-esteem and independence, relying on you for more complicated support and guidance instead of every basic need they are capable of doing for themselves.

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