“Reinforcement is anything that increases the likelihood that a person will exhibit the same behavior again in the future,” says licensed psychologist Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., CNS. “You are aiming to increase a desired behavior such as speaking politely, doing chores, playing nicely with siblings, and so on.”
And chances are you’re likely doing this already in some capacity: You praise your kid for tidying up after themselves, you compliment them after getting good grades in school, you take them out for a treat after hitting a milestone or doing well in an extracurricular. As Pressman tells us, it’s simply “giving kids attention for a certain behavior.”
However, reinforcement can backfire, if done incorrectly. And this comes back to promoting intrinsic motivation, versus extrinsic. Ideally you want your kids to develop some intrinsic motivation—which is what happens when people do something because they find it rewarding or see the benefit in doing it rather than doing it for an external reason. And getting kids to that point does take some work (and it will not happen for every single kind of task—not even adults have intrinsic motivation for all that we do!). The problem arises when parents lean on reinforcement too much and kids start to value external rewards for behaviors that they should really require self-regulation.
Pressman notes, however, that you really should think about what sort of things you want to inspire this outcome: “Every parent has different goals and priorities, and that’s not for us to judge, but you should think about the things you want your kids to value and help reinforce positive behaviors around that,” she says. “But for things like simple habits that you need them to adopt, like potty training? You can use thoughtful external rewards for that, as eventually it will just become part of their daily lives and routines.”