Healthy Minds, Healthy Souls – Parenting Myths, Part I: What’s Reinforcement Got to Do with It?

This past month I was asked to speak about 6 myths most parents have about Parenting. The first myth was entitled,“Bribery is Bad for Children.” My first thought when I read this was, aren’t we all driven by reward? Children and adults alike appreciate being rewarded for good behavior. Is that not what receiving a paycheck is all about? Companies will pay us for a job well done.

Well, children have jobs too. As parents, we all want our children to do their jobs well. From manners, to values, to following through with behaviors that shape their success, we all want our children to sit still, do their homework, listen the first time, say please and thank you and to be more respectful. We are always looking to change or affect their behavior in some way. We are told disciplinary ways of the past are timed, and the use of punishment can hurt our children’s sense of wellbeing. Yet, bribery is also bad. What’s a parent to do?

Well, the truth is, our brains were designed to be changed by experience. I’ve heard it said that “neurons that fire together, wire together.” If our experiences are positive, our brains are going to be hard wired to repeat those behaviors that led to the positive outcomes. In fact, our reward pathways are even connected to areas of our brain that control memory. That’s why, if we can remember that eating a bowl of ice cream felt rewarding or pleasurable at some point in the past, we are likely to anticipate that reward and repeat that behavior in the future. Neural connections are genuinely shaped by experience.

Much of the research today on behavior change has concluded that the best way to shape a positive behavior is to use positive reinforcement. When a good behavior is happening, we notice it, we reward it and we are likely to see more of it. Will it always have to be rewarded then? No, in fact, we tend to get good at anything we do frequently enough. Remember, neurons that fire together, wire together. Behaviors we do often enough become hard wired and thus, down the road do not require reinforcement. So, once those behaviors are shaped, the wiring is there, and the behavior continues.

In our home, we use something called a Gem jar. The kids went mining once and found several gems. We now use them to fill a mason jar every time we catch them using our values, using manners, coming down for school on time, being independent, and most importantly for them, choosing to use behavior that reflects our faith. When their jars are filled, they can be redeemed for privileges, activities, outings and things we otherwise wouldn’t normally get to do! It’s a win-win! We have fun family time and they get to keep their eyes on the vision we want them to have in this life.

“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’” (Matthew 25:21)

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