rewards that work

Choosing parenting rewards that work

When it comes to parenting, the tools you choose to implement can mean the difference between a melt-down and a successful parenting moment. Rewards that work are key…as you’ll see in the example below:

I could see his little body getting rigid and his eyes were dropping. A stand-off was imminent, and I had no idea why. I long ago gave up on being the perfect parent, but I felt like I had gotten this one moment right. The offer on the table: once he cleaned up his LEGOs and then finished up his chores, we could go to the Jump Park to meet with his favorite friends. Clearly, this was a win no matter how you look at it. 

He wasn’t having it. Not even close. 

“No, thanks,” he said as he turned his body away from me. 

“Buddy, you have to do your chores before we go to the Jump Park,” I said, as a means of making the expectations clear. I’ll help you clean up the Legos.”

“I’m not gonna!” 

And then it was on. 

I’ll spare the blow by blow, but it didn’t end well. He screamed. I screamed. We all screamed for no apparent reason. The legos didn’t get cleaned up, we didn’t go to the Jump Park, and nobody was happy. 

And why? I thought I had teed it up perfectly. I made the expectations clear. I made sure he had the skills and support he needed. I provided an incentive, and yet it was a complete failure. 

I found the answer much later in the day when I was tucking him into bed and he said, “I don’t like the Jump Park anymore. I’m afraid I’ll get hurt again.”

And then I understood everything. 

I was trying to reward him with something that wasn’t rewarding at all.

Figuring out rewards that work: What is a reinforcer, really?

Parenting is hard. We can learn!

Can a high-pitched squeal be a reinforcer? What about a slap in the face?  Or raising your voice and yelling? The answer is yes and yes and yes: if any of those things increase the behavior that happens before it, they are considered reinforcers. Reinforcers do not have to be pleasurable to strengthen behavior. If behavior increases or maintains in the future, it is because it has been reinforced. 

Of course, the opposite is also true. If a behavior does not increase, it has not been reinforced. You may have offered something that you considered valuable when you saw a behavior you liked, but the way the behavior changes determines whether or not reinforcement has occurred. It is not determined by anything other than the change in the behavior. Example: asking my son to clean up by offering him the Jump Park, without knowing that the Jump Park held no value to him anymore. 

It is so frustrating to identify the behavior you want to change, apply what you think will be reinforcing, and then not seeing the kind of behavior change you hoped. That seems like a slap in the face. We need rewards that work! But no matter how carefully you plan, you have to choose reinforcers that are actually valuable. 

Going back to the Jump Park fiasco, let’s learn from my mistakes for choosing reinforcers. In order of appearance, here were my mistakes. 

Mistake #1: I assumed that certain things should be reinforcing. We can all identify things that we like and once we have done that, we have a bias that the things that we like will be liked by others. Reinforcers are extremely specific and vary from person to person. When thinking about reinforcers for your child, try to start with a blank slate and don’t assume that anything must be or must not be a reinforcer based on your own experience.

Mistake #2: I assumed that reinforcers do not change. Interests change over time and according to the situation, but sometimes we are so desperate to find something that works, we are equally desperate to hold onto it, even when it stops working. Parents and caregivers can constantly evaluate if something is still valuable by watching how kids act. Are they approaching that favorite toy on their own or only when you offer it to them? Are they grabbing that snack and finishing it all or picking it at sometimes? Do they lose interest in an activity quickly or is it still something that keeps their attention? Play reinforcer detective to determine which things still work and which things might not work as well.

Mistake #3: I did not understand that the value of a reinforcer can be changed. Great things, even the best things, can lose their greatness and no longer have power. It’s our job to figure out how to harness and manipulate the power of reinforcement, play reinforcement detective, and make sure that when we offer a reward, it’s a reward that has value. 

Now that you know how to apply rewards that work, learn what to do when rewards stop working!

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How to choose parenting rewards that work for YOUR child in particular! Use behavioral science to become a better parent.

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