By Daniel Champer, LCPC, Intermountain Clinical Manager of School Based Services
Her name was Bertha, and she was every bit as old as her name makes her sound. Her Q-tip hair barely bobbed above the tip of the broom that she used to meticulously sweep the street in front of her house as I mowed her yard every week during the summer. My hair, on the other hand, was long and greasy and fully soaked with half a bottle of spray-in hair dye that effectively made me resemble a pubescent skunk. I’m also convinced that my teenage body had more similarities with that skunk than just visual aesthetics. I couldn’t mow in a straight line to save my life and I’m sure she got tired of seeing my baggy jeans and my Three Stooges t-shirts week in and week out. But, every single time I passed her with my mower she would say something nice to me. She would complement my work ethic, my commitment, my toothy smile, and my “unique style.” I loved mowing Bertha’s yard. And it had way more to do with the ten thousand compliments than the ten dollars I received for a job poorly done.
Most individuals can very quickly conjure up a list of “Bertha’s” that have positively influenced their life in a similar way. We are biologically wired to desire and crave positive interaction and reinforcement. The awkward part is, we just aren’t very good at it as a society. Coaches of professional sports teams are fired the minute after the end a losing season. Public figures are plastered all over the headlines whenever an impropriety is discovered. It takes approximately 2.5 seconds of reading comments online and on social media to see how pervasive the bend towards negative reinforcement is in our culture.
We aren’t always as good at providing a healthy level of positive reinforcement as parents either. It becomes embarrassingly easy to spend all of our time as parents correcting our children rather than praising them for the areas in which they do succeed. Or, we become victims of the crippling adult disease known as the “buts.” Johnny, I’m super-duper proud that you cleaned your room, BUT you left five dishes in the sink. Suzie, great job on the B in math; BUT, next time let’s get that A we all want. We often think that negative versus positive reinforcement is a tit for tat sort of affair. One positive should allow us one free negative, right? Wrong!
I am not advocating for a “free for all” parenting style in which we all let our children turn feral and terrorize the aisles of the local WalMart. We don’t have to compliment our children for throwing a great punch or spraying really pretty graffiti on the local church. In fact, negative reinforcement is a very necessary and effective tool when used appropriately. The problem is in the proportion. A plethora of research exists in the area of positive versus negative reinforcement. The common thread is that both of these reward styles are necessary and serve a role in the development and support of a child. Popular research in this area also suggests that an appropriate proportion of feedback is five to seven positive reinforcements to every one negative reinforcement used. Seven to one! That means if you have a 2 year old or a 16 year old, you need to be providing positive reinforcement to them approximately one million times a day to keep the proportion balanced.
Raising children is hard work. It is often exhausting and being positive frequently falls by the wayside. But, there are a few easy ways to make positive interaction a habit so we can achieve that optimal reinforcement ratio.
- Be clear about expectations–The ability to think in the abstract doesn’t develop in children until late adolescence or young adulthood. This means that if a kid still lives at home, then most likely they are unable to infer the meaning of an ambiguous limit. Rules and expectations must be very clear and concise so that they are simpler to follow for children and easier to evaluate and reward for adults.
- Reframe negative feedback into positive feedback–Turn phrases like “don’t do that” or “that is wrong” into opportunities to achieve success together. Phrases such as “let’s try it this way” help to create collaboration and positivity when completing a task or activity.
- Build positive reinforcement into your routine–Many of the tasks and behaviors that children are reinforced for are preexisting expectations. Schedule a day or time in the week to evaluate these expectations. This will give you a chance to provide positive feedback on a regular basis. Sticker charts and chore charts are also structured ways that allow for positive feedback within the routine of a classroom or family setting.
- Reward positive behavior immediately–Don’t wait until you feel like it. If you see something good, reward it immediately.
- Avoid bribery–Positive reinforcement is the addition of a reward following a desired behavior. Bribery is a promise of something in an attempt to influence behavior. Make sure that all positives are given after the goal is achieved.
- Be specific and clear–General positive feedback such as “great job” or “good work” does not necessarily meet the criteria of positive reinforcement. Praise or rewards must be tied to a specific behavior or action that is being lauded in order to be effective. Otherwise, you are leaving it up to the child to decide what they are being rewarded for. Good luck with that.
Several years ago, I was deeply saddened to hear that Bertha had passed away at the ripe old age of 98. But, as I reflected on my memories of how deeply her positivity had impacted my life I realized that most of the things that Bertha had praised are still present in my life today (except for the skunk hair). Our young people need praise and encouragement, not negativity and disapproval. Be Bertha. Change the world.
Daniel Champer is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor who currently serves as the clinical manager of School Based Services for Intermountain in Helena. Daniel provides clinical leadership and oversight to teams of mental health professionals who provide therapeutic services in public school settings in the Helena area.