The Power of Positive Reinforcement

Q: As we begin the school year, I am taking a look back at my previous attempts to improve as a parent, and I see that my lack of consistency is my biggest issue. What happens is that I get distracted easily, and can go from one task to another without finishing the ones I started (somehow they do eventually get finished).

Bli ayin hara we have eight children, and I’m sure they respect me less because of this, and I feel a little embarrassed about it.

Some deal with my lack of consistency better than others. Some of our children have learned to deal with this issue by taking care of certain needs themselves. Others have made their own behavior charts, as I often don’t get around to doing it, but then I can totally forget about filling them in.

Aren’t there other ways to work on getting children out of their bad habits and annoying behaviors?

I try to verbally focus on the positive when I need to correct my children, but it doesn’t seem to have a long-term effect on their behavior. Any ideas on how I can work on this?

A: Not all parents work well with behavior charts, but the idea of behavior modification techniques can be approached in a slightly different fashion. People (children included) by nature live according to the habits they have acquired over time. To change a problematic behavior or action takes much effort on the part of individuals who don’t always feel motivated to change. Thus, having some type of “reward” in mind makes the journey somewhat less arduous and taxing on our psyche.

A question you need to ask yourself is, “In what ways am I consistent as a person?” Be it in daily actions such as davening or even brushing your teeth, what is the motivating force behind these consistent activities? Do you continually remind yourself of the necessities and benefits of doing them, or have they become a part of you due to their repetitive nature?

Now, how can you achieve success in a different area by using similar motivating techniques and applying them to this new endeavor?

In a similar vein, in whichever way you’d like to positively modify your child’s behavior, repetitive responses and positive visualizations need to occur. In the past 10 to 20 years, scientific research has verified the concept of neuroplasticity — the idea that the brain can change its patterns. The idea that the subconscious has the most major, eternal impact on one’s thought processes has been proven to be a limited one.

On a concrete level, studies show the efficacy of regular aerobic exercise, consistent meditation and continual cognitive behavior modification (positive self-talk). The common denominator we see here is that it’s the consistency of an action that produces the greatest effects on its participants.

If a parent wants to work on a child’s untidy habits, he or she can focus on a specific time at night, and that will be the deadline for cleanup. A simple index card on a refrigerator can either have a check written for that evening, or not. A certain amount of checks can bring with it a trip to the ice cream store. Your child might happily remind you of the time and completed task.

Delegating responsibility need not be a poor reflection of your parenting abilities. We create our own self-image and subjective expectations of ourselves. Employing the help of a responsible (but not very critical) child can help behavior modification techniques. (However, If this child becomes a “parentified” child and takes on this role too intensely, he is not the one cut out for this job.)

If these goals are viewed as a group project, their positive results are maximized. An example of this is when siblings work on a “family goal.” The reward for this project could be going to an amusement park or to a restaurant, depending on the expectations and budget of the family.

The above ideas involve less “paperwork” on your part. And if you put a yellow sticky paper on the fridge to remind yourself, it shows commitment to your wanting to be consistent. (Yes, even if the paper falls off…)

Hatzlachah rabbah in this most essential endeavor!