What Is Positive Reinforcement In Parenting: Practical Strategies

October 11, 2023

In the world of parenting, finding effective strategies to encourage positive behavior in children is key. This article explores the concept of positive reinforcement in parenting, providing practical strategies that can be implemented in your daily interactions with your child. By understanding the power of positive reinforcement and incorporating these strategies into your parenting approach, you can create a nurturing and encouraging environment that promotes growth and development in your child. Let’s dive into the world of positive reinforcement and discover practical ways to nurture your child’s positive behavior!

Understanding Positive Reinforcement

Definition of Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is a parenting technique that involves providing rewards or incentives to encourage desired behaviors in children. It focuses on reinforcing positive behaviors rather than punishing negative ones, with the ultimate goal of promoting self-discipline, motivation, and healthy development in children. By using positive reinforcement, parents can create a supportive and nurturing environment that fosters a sense of autonomy and self-confidence in their children.

Importance of Positive Reinforcement in Parenting

Positive reinforcement plays a crucial role in parenting because it helps strengthen the parent-child bond and promotes positive behavior. When children receive praise, recognition, and rewards for exhibiting desired behaviors, they feel valued, nurtured, and motivated to continue those behaviors. Furthermore, positive reinforcement helps children develop a strong sense of self-efficacy, resilience, and emotional well-being. It encourages them to make responsible choices, develop empathy, and build healthy relationships with others.

How Positive Reinforcement Works

Operant Conditioning

Positive reinforcement operates on the principles of operant conditioning. This theory suggests that behaviors that are followed by rewarding consequences are more likely to be repeated in the future. When a child engages in a desired behavior like cleaning up their toys or completing homework, and they receive a reward such as praise or a small treat, they learn that the behavior is positive and will likely repeat it in the future. Through this process, positive reinforcement helps shape and strengthen desired behaviors over time.

Behavioral Changes through Rewards

Rewards play a key role in positive reinforcement as they serve as the motivating factor for children to engage in desired behaviors. Rewards can take the form of praise, stickers, privileges, small toys, or quality time spent with parents. The choice of reward depends on the child’s age, preferences, and the behavior being encouraged. By associating rewards with positive behaviors, children are more likely to repeat those behaviors, creating a positive cycle of reinforcement.

Benefits of Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement has numerous benefits for both parents and children. For parents, it allows them to focus on promoting positive behaviors and building a strong bond with their child. It encourages a more harmonious and cooperative parent-child relationship, reducing the need for excessive discipline or punishment. For children, positive reinforcement fosters a sense of accomplishment and self-worth. It boosts their confidence, motivation, and sense of belonging. Moreover, children who experience positive reinforcement are more likely to exhibit prosocial behaviors, develop effective problem-solving skills, and maintain healthy social interactions.

Practical Strategies for Positive Reinforcement

Identify and Define Desired Behaviors

The first step in implementing positive reinforcement is to identify and define the desired behaviors that parents wish to encourage in their child. This can include actions like completing chores, showing kindness to siblings, or completing homework on time. By clearly defining these behaviors, parents can effectively communicate their expectations to their child and set a foundation for positive reinforcement.

Choose Appropriate Rewards

Selecting appropriate rewards is essential in positive reinforcement. Rewards should be meaningful to the child and serve as an incentive to engage in the desired behaviors. It is important to consider the child’s age, interests, and preferences when choosing rewards. For younger children, simple rewards like stickers or a special treat can be effective, while older children may respond better to privileges or quality time with their parents. The key is to ensure that the rewards are motivating and aligned with the child’s needs and interests.

Timing and Consistency

Timing plays a crucial role in positive reinforcement. Rewards should be given immediately after the desired behavior is exhibited, as this strengthens the association between the behavior and the reward. Delayed rewards may lead to confusion and weaken the reinforcement effect. Additionally, consistency is key to the success of positive reinforcement. Parents must consistently reward the desired behaviors and avoid inconsistency, as this can undermine the effectiveness of the technique.

Specific Praise and Recognition

When providing positive reinforcement, it is important to be specific in praising and recognizing the child’s efforts and achievements. Instead of generic praise like “good job,” it is more effective to provide specific feedback that highlights the behavior and its positive impact. For example, saying “Great job putting away your toys. It helps keep our living room tidy and organized” acknowledges the specific behavior and its benefits, reinforcing the child’s understanding of the desired behavior.

Use Tangible Rewards

Tangible rewards can be particularly effective, especially for younger children who may not fully grasp abstract concepts like praise or recognition. Tangible rewards such as small toys, tokens, or stickers provide a visual and tangible representation of the child’s accomplishment. This can enhance their motivation and make the positive reinforcement more immediate and tangible.

Create a Reward Chart or System

A reward chart or system is a visual tool that allows children to track their progress and be rewarded for their efforts over time. It provides a structured and tangible way to reinforce positive behaviors. Parents can create a chart with specific behaviors listed and allocate points or stars for each completed behavior. Once a certain number of points or stars are accumulated, the child can receive a predetermined reward. This system encourages consistency, goal-setting, and a sense of achievement.

Model Positive Behavior

Children learn by observing and imitating their parents’ behavior. Modeling positive behavior is a powerful form of positive reinforcement as it sets an example for children to follow. Parents should strive to exhibit the behaviors they wish to see in their child, such as being kind, respectful, and responsible. When children observe their parents engaging in positive behaviors and being rewarded for them, they are more likely to emulate those behaviors.

Natural Consequences

Positive reinforcement can also be linked to natural consequences, which occur naturally as a result of behavior. For example, if a child consistently completes their homework, the natural consequence is better grades and academic success. By highlighting and discussing these natural consequences, parents can reinforce the positive behaviors and help children understand the long-term benefits of their actions.

Avoiding Over-reliance on Rewards

While rewards are an important part of positive reinforcement, it is essential for parents to strike a balance and avoid over-reliance on external rewards. Over time, the intrinsic motivation stemming from a sense of accomplishment and personal satisfaction should become the primary driving force behind a child’s behavior. Gradually reducing the reliance on tangible rewards and emphasizing intrinsic rewards can foster a sense of internal motivation and long-term behavioral change.

Maintaining a Balance between Rewards and Expectations

It is crucial to maintain a balance between rewards and expectations in positive reinforcement. While rewards are used to encourage and reinforce positive behaviors, parents must also establish clear expectations and boundaries for their child. Children need to understand that certain behaviors are expected as part of their responsibilities and that rewards are earned for going above and beyond those expectations.

Implementing Positive Reinforcement in Everyday Parenting

Establishing Clear Expectations

Clear communication of expectations is essential in positive reinforcement. Parents should clearly outline their expectations regarding behavior, chores, and responsibilities with their child. By setting clear guidelines, children know what behaviors are desired and what is expected of them.

Setting Realistic Goals

It is important to set realistic goals when implementing positive reinforcement. Expecting too much from a child can lead to frustration and discouragement. Parents should set achievable goals that are age-appropriate and take into account their child’s capabilities and developmental stage. By setting realistic goals, parents can maintain a positive and encouraging environment that nurtures their child’s self-esteem and growth.

Using Positive Language

Positive reinforcement extends beyond rewards to the language used when interacting with a child. Using positive language that focuses on strengths, possibilities, and encouragement enhances the effectiveness of positive reinforcement. Phrases like “You did a great job” or “I appreciate your effort” convey support and appreciation, reinforcing positive behaviors.

Offering Choices

Allowing children to make choices empowers them and promotes autonomy. Within appropriate boundaries, parents can offer choices to their child, such as choosing between two acceptable activities or selecting a reward from a predetermined list. By providing choices, parents encourage decision-making skills and create opportunities for positive reinforcement linked to those choices.

Providing Immediate Feedback

Timely feedback is essential for effective positive reinforcement. Providing immediate feedback after a desired behavior reinforces the connection between the behavior and the reward. It allows children to understand the connection between their actions and the positive consequences they receive.

Creating a Positive and Supportive Environment

Creating a positive and supportive environment is vital for successful positive reinforcement. Parents should strive to create an atmosphere of love, trust, and open communication where children feel safe and supported. When children feel valued and respected, they are more likely to engage in positive behaviors and respond positively to reinforcement.

Rewarding Effort and Progress

In addition to rewarding the end result, it is important to recognize and reward the effort and progress made by a child. By acknowledging their hard work, perseverance, and improvement, parents reinforce the idea that effort and progress are valuable and deserving of praise and recognition.

Adjusting Strategies for Different Ages and Personalities

Positive reinforcement strategies should be adapted to accommodate the unique needs, temperament, and developmental stage of each child. What works effectively for one child may not be as effective for another. Parents should observe and understand their child’s individual characteristics and customize the positive reinforcement approach accordingly.

Being Personalized and Individualized

Each child is unique, and positive reinforcement should be personalized and individualized to their specific needs. It is important to consider their strengths, weaknesses, interests, and preferences when designing a positive reinforcement plan. Tailoring the rewards and strategies to the child ensures a more meaningful and impactful experience.

Maintaining Open Communication

Open and honest communication between parents and children is crucial in positive reinforcement. Parents should create an environment where children feel comfortable expressing their thoughts, concerns, and ideas. Regular check-ins and open discussions about the behavior and the reinforcement process foster trust, understanding, and cooperation.

Dealing with Challenges and Pitfalls

Avoiding Bribery and Manipulation

Positive reinforcement should never be mistaken for bribery or manipulation. While rewards are used to encourage positive behavior, they should not be offered as an exchange or bribe for compliance. The emphasis should always be on reinforcing positive behaviors naturally and teaching children the intrinsic value of those behaviors.

Dealing with Non-compliance

Not all children will immediately respond to positive reinforcement, and non-compliance can occur. In such cases, it is important for parents to remain patient and persistent. Parents can reinforce the desired behavior by reiterating the expectations, emphasizing the benefits, and providing additional guidance or support if needed.

Addressing Inconsistent Behavior

Inconsistency in behavior can pose a challenge to positive reinforcement. If a child exhibits inconsistent behavior despite positive reinforcement efforts, parents should assess the underlying factors that may be contributing to the inconsistency. They can then address these factors through additional guidance, communication, and support.

Handling Resistance or Opposition

Children may display resistance or opposition to positive reinforcement, especially if they perceive it as controlling or restrictive. It is important for parents to address these concerns and explain that positive reinforcement is intended to support their growth, development, and well-being. Providing open dialogue, listening to their perspective, and involving them in decision-making can help overcome resistance and opposition.

Recognizing and Adjusting for Individual Differences

Sibling dynamics, birth order, and personality traits can influence the effectiveness of positive reinforcement. Parents should recognize and adjust their positive reinforcement strategies to meet the individual needs and characteristics of each child. This may involve tailoring rewards, adapting communication styles, or addressing specific concerns unique to each child.

Dealing with Emotional Outbursts or Tantrums

Emotional outbursts or tantrums can pose challenges when implementing positive reinforcement. Parents should remain calm and patient during these moments, providing a safe and calming environment for the child to express their emotions. Addressing the underlying emotions and reinforcing positive behavior after the outburst can help teach emotional regulation and resilience.

Managing Frustration and Disappointment

Parents may sometimes feel frustrated or disappointed when their child does not respond as expected to positive reinforcement. It is important to remember that positive behavior change takes time, and setbacks are a natural part of the learning process. Encouraging effort, recognizing progress, and seeking support from other parents or professionals can help manage frustration and maintain a positive approach.

Being Patient and Persistent

Positive reinforcement requires patience and persistence. It may take time for children to fully grasp and internalize the desired behaviors. Parents should remain consistent, provide support, and be patient during the learning process. Over time, the positive impact of reinforcement will become more apparent.

Seeking Professional Support if Needed

If parents encounter challenges in implementing positive reinforcement or have concerns about their child’s behavior, seeking professional support can be beneficial. Child psychologists, therapists, or parenting experts can provide guidance, strategies, and insights tailored to the specific needs of the family.

Evaluating and Adjusting Strategies as Necessary

Positive reinforcement should be an ongoing process that adapts and evolves as the child grows and develops. Parents should regularly evaluate the effectiveness of their strategies and make adjustments as necessary. Fostering open communication, observing the child’s progress, and being flexible in approach will help ensure that positive reinforcement remains relevant and impactful.

Potential Risks and Alternatives to Positive Reinforcement

Over-reliance on Rewards

While rewards can be effective in promoting positive behavior, over-reliance on external rewards can have risks. Children may become solely focused on obtaining rewards rather than understanding the intrinsic value of positive behaviors. To avoid this, parents should gradually reduce the dependency on tangible rewards and emphasize intrinsic motivation, emphasizing the internal satisfaction and personal growth that comes from engaging in positive behaviors.

Dependency on External Validation

Positive reinforcement should aim to foster intrinsic motivation and self-esteem rather than creating an unhealthy dependency on external validation. Overemphasis on seeking approval or rewards from others can hinder a child’s ability to develop self-confidence and self-worth. Parents should focus on nurturing a child’s internal motivation and helping them understand the importance of self-validation and personal satisfaction.

Understanding the Importance of Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation, driven by internal factors like personal interest, enjoyment, and a sense of accomplishment, is essential for long-term behavioral change. Parents should gradually shift the focus from tangible rewards to intrinsic rewards, helping children understand that engaging in positive behaviors brings personal satisfaction and contributes to their overall well-being.

Exploring Other Parenting Techniques

Positive reinforcement is just one of many parenting techniques and should not be the sole approach. Parents should explore other techniques such as setting limits, providing guidance, and teaching problem-solving skills. By combining different approaches, parents can create a holistic and well-rounded parenting style that meets the unique needs of their child.

Balancing Different Approaches

Positive reinforcement should be balanced with other discipline strategies to provide a comprehensive approach to parenting. Techniques like setting limits, consequences, and constructive correction can complement positive reinforcement and help children develop a well-rounded understanding of behavioral expectations.

Combining Positive Reinforcement with Other Discipline Strategies

Positive reinforcement can be combined with other discipline strategies to create a balanced approach. For example, parents can use positive reinforcement to encourage desired behaviors while using logical consequences for negative behaviors. By combining different strategies, parents can address a wide range of behaviors and ensure holistic growth and development.

Considering Natural Consequences

Natural consequences refer to the natural outcomes that result from a behavior. Parents can integrate natural consequences into positive reinforcement by allowing their child to experience the natural results of their actions. This helps children learn the consequences of their choices and encourages responsible decision-making.

Integrating Constructive Correction and Feedback

Positive reinforcement should be accompanied by constructive correction and feedback when addressing negative behaviors. When a child engages in undesired behavior, it is important for parents to provide guidance, explanations, and alternatives to help the child understand the impact of their actions and make better choices in the future.

Fostering Emotional Intelligence and Self-regulation

Positive reinforcement can be enhanced by promoting emotional intelligence and self-regulation skills in children. Parents can help children identify and manage their emotions, teach healthy coping mechanisms, and reinforce positive behaviors related to emotional regulation. By fostering emotional intelligence, parents empower their children to make positive choices and navigate challenging situations effectively.

Promoting Values and Moral Development

Positive reinforcement can align with the promotion of values and moral development in children. Parents can use reinforcement to strengthen behaviors that embody the values they wish to instill, such as empathy, kindness, and honesty. By consistently reinforcing positive behaviors aligned with these values, parents help shape their child’s character and moral compass.


Positive reinforcement is a powerful and effective parenting technique that promotes positive behavior, self-discipline, and self-worth in children. By understanding how positive reinforcement works through operant conditioning and rewards, parents can implement practical strategies that support their child’s growth and development. It is important to adapt these strategies to the child’s individual needs, maintain clear expectations, and provide a supportive environment. While positive reinforcement can have potential risks if overused, it can be balanced with other discipline strategies and contribute to a well-rounded parenting approach. By fostering intrinsic motivation, emotional intelligence, and values, parents can nurture their child’s growth and lay the foundation for a positive and fulfilling life.

Sandra McNeil, PhD.
Sandra McNeil, PhD.

Sandra has over 13 years of experience as a child psychologist, both as a practitioner and researcher. She has a Bachelor's in child psychology from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and then she did her master's in Psychology in Education (focused on Children & Families) at Columbia University, NY. She has been writing for health and child-related publications for over 5 years now.

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