Parenting Tips: The Power of Praise and Other Positive Reinforcement

great-job-signPraise is powerful. It is something we all relish. Everybody likes to be recognized for what we are doing well, for our successes, and for our efforts. It feels good to be praised. Plus, we feel motivated to continue to work harder, to do better, and to achieve more. It is no different with children. Children respond positively to being praised. They thrive when their parents, teachers or coaches acknowledge their good behaviour, effort, listening, sharing, empathy, etc. Moreover, the benefits of praise include helping to build your child’s self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-worth.

Do you take notice when your child behaves well? Do you tell them that you saw what they did and that you are proud of them? How did your child respond to your praise or positive attention? And then what happened next? It is important to “catch your child being good” and to let them know you were paying attention. Try to describe what you saw and what you liked (For example, “That was great sharing with your sister” or “Thank you for helping to clean up” or “I am proud of you for trying your best on your math homework,” etc.) Why? Because when you reinforce what is positive, you are shaping behaviour. And, you increase the likelihood that your child’s behaviour will improve because you took notice and praised them.

incentivePositive reinforcement can also take the form of tangible rewards. A pay cheque for our work is a form of positive reinforcement. This may surprise you to know that in dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) groups today, adult participants earn stickers for completing their assigned homework for the week! So this type of positive reinforcement or incentive works no matter what your age. For children, rewards can be any thing from earned privileges (such as staying up late, choosing a special activity, playing a favourite game, extra time on the iPad) to small treats (like stickers, a piece of candy or gum, etc) to big prizes (such as a trip to the dollar store, a new toy, an outing to a restaurant, etc). As a child, I remember how exciting it was to get back a test or a project from my teacher with a colourful sticker of a happy face, a big star, or one that read “Way to Go!” It was a proud moment and was made even more special when shared with my parents. The stickers provided me with motivation to keep up the good work.

When to give this type of positive reinforcement? You can use tangible rewards when you want to change specific behaviours. When paired with an organized chart system, little rewards (such as stickers) can be given each time your child shows the desired behaviours and bigger prizes are awarded when your child repeatedly shows the targeted behaviours.

figure_with_green_checkmarkExample of a Chart System: Suppose your child struggles with getting ready in the morning before school. You can make a chart with the five school days of the week across the top row and the target behaviour(s) in the first column. Depending on the age and needs of the child, you can break down the routine into smaller steps (i.e., wake up at 7:30 am; brush teeth; comb hair; get dressed; eat breakfast; pack schoolbag) or you can have 1-2 more general categories, such as ‘get up on your own’ and ‘be ready to leave by 8:15 am’. Post the chart in a visible place in the house, such as on the fridge. Review each day with your child what he or she accomplished and then put a sticker, happy face, or star in the appropriate box. Remember to make a big deal out of your child’s successes. If a task was not completed, leave it blank. Discuss with your child how they think they can do better next time. Agree with your child that once he or she has accumulated a certain number of stickers or stars, then a bigger prize will be awarded and decide together what that reward will be. This type of chart can also be useful to help with organization and time management skills. Of course, the charts can be modified as your child’s behaviour improves and new goals can be selected to keep it interesting for both parent and child.

Positive reinforcement, whether through praise or tangible rewards, is both motivating and promotes your child’s positive development. It is a cornerstone of good basic parenting skills and importantly, can serve to strengthen your relationship with your child.

Best wishes,
Dr. Stephanie

P.S. As always, I welcome your questions, comments, and feedback about the post.

Top two images courtesy of Stuart Miles /
Bottom image courtesy of Master isolated images /