Your Children Don’t Need “Positive Reinforcement”

Is “positive reinforcement” the most popular parenting and schooling phrase? I don’t have any hard statistics, but if I were to bet money I’d split my bet between “obedience” and “positive reinforcement.”

The question typically starts out like this: “How can I get my child to ‘X?'” Then comes the famous answer, “Do ‘Y,’ he needs positive reinforcement.”

It’s a parenting and schooling sacred cow. And oh do I love slaughtering those.

I’m writing this, by the way, as an extension of my article on praise, because praise is a popular form of positive reinforcement. If you haven’t read that article yet, you may want to start there as it lays the groundwork for this article.

“Positive reinforcement” is not a nice sounding term coined by well-meaning parents. It was a term coined by a scientist. A “behaviorist” named B.F. Skinner who is often referred to as the father of Operant Conditioning, which is a learning process based on seeking or avoiding the consequences of specific behaviors.

Punishment and Reinforcement are both forms of Operant Conditioning. But there are two forms of both. You can have positive punishment or negative punishment and positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement. Positive and negative are scientific terms in this regard, not moralizations of the type of reinforcement.

B.F. Skinner developed his Operant Conditioning theories by putting lab animals in an “Operant Conditioning Chamber,” later called “The Skinner Box.” Trapped in this box, the animals were subject to different types of punishments and reinforcements and their behavior was recorded.

This isn’t rocket surgery. Anyone who has a dog knows what operant conditioning looks like. You teach a dog to sit by coaxing them into the position and then rewarding them with a treat. They associate the reward with the treat and thus learn to obey the “sit” command. This is what Skinner would call “positive reinforcement.”

On the flip side, a shock collar is used as “positive punishment” to get a dog to stop doing an undesirable behavior. The use of the shock after the behavior teaches the animal to avoid that behavior.

“Reinforcements” get an animal to do something. “Punishments” get an animal to stop doing something. There’s no problem, scientifically, with any of this. As I said, it’s very basic stuff. The problem is that society believes operant conditioning is a great way to raise children.

Mainstream parents employ operant conditioning every day….

Positive Reinforcement = Stickers, rewards, treats, praise. (You get children to repeat a behavior by rewarding them for it).

Negative Reinforcement = Nagging (You get a child to repeat a behavior by introducing a negative stimuli until they perform the behavior to escape it. The child learns to do that behavior or be subject to incessant nagging, for example).

Positive Punishment = Spanking. Threats. Rage. (You get a child to stop doing something undesirable by doing something undesirable to them).

Negative Punishment = Time out. Confiscating property. “Grounding.” (You get a child to stop doing something undesirable by removing something they enjoy).

Looking at that list, most mainstream parents are probably scratching their heads wondering, “Yeah? So?” This is especially true when it comes to positive reinforcement because it sounds so kind and gentle. And that’s precisely why positive reinforcement is so popular.

But what’s rarely talked about is the two types of operant conditioning. There is Natural Operant Conditioning and Manufactured Operant Conditioning (no need to look up these terms, I just made them up. Again, it’s not rocket surgery). In other words, animals and humans can become conditioned through natural stimuli or through “training.” 

Your children cannot escape operant conditioning because all behaviors have natural consequences. What your child can escape, with your help, is training—the manufactured use of operant conditioning.

Human beings are not dogs or lab rats. Humans have more complex emotions. They have a much greater capacity for critical thinking. In short, they’re not stupid lab animals.

While it’s necessary to condition and train animals because they don’t reason well, it’s not necessary to condition and train human beings. When you use manufactured operant conditioning on a child, you’re treating them the same way you’d treat your dog. Many parents even use the phrase “good boy” or “good girl” on their child. That’s proof that I’m not embellishing.

Not only is it unnecessary to train human beings the way you train animals, it’s disrespectful. It’s also highly ineffective for achieving the bigger, long term goals you have for your children.

“How is it disrespectful?” When operant conditioning is used as training it degrades trust and your connection with other human beings. If you make a mistake at work and your boss reprimands you in front of the entire office, it doesn’t make you want to get better so you can help the company, it makes you want to be better so you can avoid his wrath. And you hate him for that.

Or what if you made that mistake, which really had no major consequences to the company, and he docked your pay by $100 just to teach you a lesson? Would that bring you closer to him and the company you work for? No, you’d be pissed. Welcome to how kids feel every day under the thumb of parents who employ operant conditioning strategies.

“How is it ineffective for long term goals?” Training humans makes their behavior inauthentic. If kids are conditioned to repeat or avoid certain behaviors for rewards or the avoidance of punishment, their behavior is coerced. Coerced behavior is not virtuous. It’s not values-based. It’s not voluntary.

They’re not saying “Thank you” because they’re truly thankful, they’re saying it because they were trained to say it. They’re not keeping their room clean because you’ve managed to get them to buy into the value of having a clean and tidy space, they’re doing it to avoid your wrath. And when they live on their own, they’re not likely to follow through. Or worse, they’ll be messy out of spite. See, you haven’t given them tools, you’ve given them treats and fear.

This also brings us back to the difference between the reasoning ability of humans vs animals. Humans are smart. Unlike dogs, they know that when people aren’t watching there won’t be rewards or punishments. When their own self-interest overrides their training, they’ll stray from their programmed thinking. Instead of having real values and principles, conditioned humans are constantly doing a cost-benefit analysis to decide if undesirable behavior is worth carrying out at any given moment. B.F. Skinner himself explicitly stated this.

A person who has been punished is not less inclined to behave in a given way; at best, he learns how to avoid punishment.

~ B. F. Skinner

If you want blindly obedient children who have a weak emotional connection with you, operant conditioning is the way to go. If you want virtuous, honest, empathetic, authentic children who think for themselves and respect you as a true leader, you must abandon your operant conditioning approach in favor of reason. In favor of the five pillars of revolutionary parenting: empathy, integrity, self-awareness, patience, and negotiation.


  • Andrea

    OK, I am all with you, BUT…. but can I tell my school? My daughter (P2) on some days comes home with 3 (THREE!) stickers, and if it isn’t a sticker it is a certificate of achievement (which I am pretty sure are given out according to a rota) or such like. On top of that we have some kind of traffic light system to manage behaviour.
    I have talked to the headteacher more than ones, but although she APPEARS to agree with me in principle, she also says that she needs a quick fix to manage n children (with n varying from 20-30) and that the teacher does not have time to have a sit down every time a child misbehave.
    Also, I think that at teacher training (emphasis on the “training” bit) they are taught about “positive reinforcement” as my child’s teacher, who is very young indeed and just starting, is a great believer of that.

    Just to give you an idea, when I went to the “new teacher meets the parent” evening, the presentation she gave lasted less than 30 mins, 9 of which where devoted to explaining the (and I quote) “reward system”; that was the single longest item, lasting more than numeracy, literacy, etc.

    A lost battle, if you ask me…

      • Andrea

        I have been listening to some of the podcast (90 mins!!), but it doesn’t seem to address what to do NOW. Actually nobody seems to have an answer. I am not looking for a recipe, but a direction, otherwise they’ll keep shutting me up. Not even Alfie Kohn could really produce it and I am too far away to ask him to come and speak at my school 😉

        • Anon

          The answer is simple. Not easy, not convenient, but very simple. Remove your child from the toxic environment. It is unrealistic to think that you will be able to change your child’s experience at that school within a reasonable timeframe.

          The American public school system is not broken. It does just what it is designed to do. If you don’t like the outcomes it achieves you must remove yourself and your child from the system.

  • Jennifer

    Hi there. You did not quite capture what negative reinforcement is. It’s tricky. Reinforced behaviour will be repeated. That you got. However the ‘negative’ piece means removal of something (in this case something that is unpleasant and follows a desired behaviour). A simple example: with a child you might want them to focus on their homework and reinforce that behaviour by doing a chore they dread for them after they have focused on their homework. Alternatively, perhaps a clearly example, to negatively reinforce your daughter ‘using her words’ with her little brother when he is annoying her you might remove her brother from her room for her after she chose to use her words rather than hit him.

    Remember reinforcers and punishers are consequences of the behaviour (and therefore must come AFTER the behaviour). Regarding nagging as in your example the only time that would be a negative reinforcer of behaviour would be if you stopped nagging when a desired behaviour was done-since nagging is unpleasant. That might be a stretch. Since nagging comes before the behaviour it is an antecedent to the behaviour (something that sets a behaviour up to happen or not happen). If you want to change a habit you can alter the antecedents to behaviour. For example, if you want to watch less TV you could move your TV to the basement since seeing the TV when you walk into the living room is an antecedent to watching TV. Having healthy food on the counter is an antecedent to choosing that over junk, etc. etc. (Antecedents precede the Behaviour and Consequences follow-sometimes referred to as the A, B, C’s for that reason).

    To recap in the context of operant learning:
    punisher=reduces behaviour
    reinforcer=increases behaviour

    positve= ADD (something unpleasant for punishment [e.g. yelling]; something desirable for reinforcement [e.g. provide attention])
    negative=REMOVE (something desirable for punishment [e.g. provoke a privilege]; something unpleasant for reinforcement [e.g. if a child hits a kid who is annoying them and the kid stops annoying them that negatively reinforces the hitting behaviour]

    Source: I am doing a PhD in psychology and taught a course at the university level on this topic

    • Kevin Geary

      Your take on negative reinforcement doesn’t appear to align with Skinner’s definition: “Negative reinforcement (escape): This occurs when a behavior (response) is followed by the removal of an aversive stimulus, thereby increasing that behavior’s frequency. In the Skinner box experiment, the aversive stimulus might be a loud noise continuously sounding inside the box; negative reinforcement would happen when the rat presses a lever, turning off the noise.”

      • Flurina

        I’m pretty sure Jennifer’s explanation does align with Skinner’s definition.

        – Rat presses lever to escape the noise
        – Child does homework to escape’ the dishwashing (a chore he or she hates doing and if they do their homework, the parent does it for them)
        – Daughter uses her words to escape annoying little brother (removed by parent)

        Or do you consider these examples to be unequal/not comparable?

        • Kevin Geary

          “Child does homework to escape’ the dishwashing (a chore he or she hates doing and if they do their homework, the parent does it for them)”

          The dishwashing is not something that is actively happening to the child. A noise is something that’s actively happening to the rat.

          “Daughter uses her words to escape annoying little brother (removed by parent)”

          I never even really got to this one because the first example was inconsistent.

          • J Taulor

            Escape is also the escape from a threat of something. The thing does not need to be occurring. For example. you drive the speed limit in an area where you know police are targeting speeders.

            The behavior: Driving the speed limit
            Negative reinforcer: not getting a ticket.

            Also, I find it a bit pretentious for you to correct a university lecturer on the subject. She is not wrong in her assessment of negative reinforcement.

    • Kate

      This is a really wonderful article. Positive reinforcement is so unnessary. Having a strong connection is so much more effective in keeping children’s behaviour on-track. I wish more parents knew this!

  • J Taylor

    This article completely misses the point. Operant conditioning is how we learn, and how we learn pretty much everything. Why would one not want to change the behavior of our children for the better by manipulating antecedent and consequent variables to produce socially viable change?

    The principles of ABA clearly do not call for blind obedience, in fact they call for the opposite. The behaviors targeted for change must be socially valid and be something the child will have the motivation to maintain once the intervention has been faded completely.

    Using the manner in which we learn (consequences of our actions) to teach our children how to be better people is wise, just and kind. The problem lies with people who misunderstand the principles, not with the principles themselves.

    Additionally, authenticity is not a definable term. Authenticity will not change problem behavior or teach new skills. While living an authentic life is a worthy goal, it has no meaning in the science of behavior change, psychology or education. It is a made up term to make parents feel good. Using the scientifically backed principles of applied behavior analysis is the most ethical and effective way to shape the behavior of all things.

    Again, operant conditioning is a natural phenomenon, and how we all learn. Why would you not want to capitalize on the actual process which gives us our skills?

  • Audrey

    what is “rocket surgery”? I’ve heard of the term “rocket science”, but not the one you used…are you being sarcastic or was it a change in terms to define something else?

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Your Children Don’t Need “Positive Reinforcement…

by Kevin Geary time to read: 5 min