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Positive reinforcement gives me the creeps

  1. Aug 7, 2009 #1


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    When a child does something favourable in the eyes of his parents, even something insignificant, and gets heaped with praise it gives me the creeps. I know that it's a useful educational tool but when every small action is rewarded it seems sort of like brainwashing. The kid is doing things to get positive attention, not because he made an informed decision. Isn't this the opposite of what we're supposed to teach our kids?
    When I look back at myself around the ages 5-10 I can remember plenty of silly things that I did, just because I liked the warm glow of my parent's praise.
    Shouldn't there better ways of teaching kids right and wrong? Such as explanation?
    Or are small children immune to logic and hence can be taught only be repetition and reinforcement?
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 7, 2009 #2


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    Don't ask me how I ran into this article, but I did recently read an article about how there was a rather large study that had recently published their results about such rampant positive reinforcement in response to apparently a trend in the 80's about always telling kids they're doing great no matter what.

    Their results were kinda what one would expect. As early as 3 years old or so, children can sense when they're being praised for no reason. This results in the positive reinforcement becoming meaningless. The study focused on the difference between kids who were praised whether they did good or bad and those who were praised for their effort if they did show effort. They found kids who had effort praised vs. blanket praise performed much better in challenges given towards them. One of the researchers said that it was because kids who linked effort with results and praise realized that they need to put effort into what they do. The kids who had blanket praise were actually afraid of challenges and thus performed poorly because the link between effort and results didnt exist in their mind and they felt they had an innate intelligence and if they couldn't do something, it was because they weren't smart enough and not because they didn't try.

    They also had some long-term viewing of how kids grew up with the whole blanket praise trend. Apparently the kids grew up with a higher failure rate in things such as college and graduate school admission.

    Guess a little common sense goes a long way! I wish I knew where that article was...
  4. Aug 7, 2009 #3


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    Positive reinforcement has to be used appropriately, or it won't work. Heaping praise out of proportion for insignificant things reduces the value of the praise for important things. Positive reinforcement is a strong tool for shaping behavior, but it can just as easily shape the wrong behavior if misused. For example, making a big fuss when a kid does something wrong is also positive reinforcement...they are getting a reaction to something they've done.
  5. Aug 7, 2009 #4
    If it's a problem, I doubt it's a big one. I think the bigger issue is all the negative reinforcement kids get. It's not uncommon at all to see parents yelling with unconcealed anger at their children for nothing more sinister than the inconvenience the kids cause them. I didn't have kids until I was 40 years old and perhaps that is why I was more patient with them, they can be very inconvenient at times. Is 30 too young to be having kids?

    By the way, I'm pretty lavish with the praise. Children naturally believe that the world turns about them and I encourage it. They won't be children forever. Well, they will be to me, but not to themselves.
  6. Aug 7, 2009 #5
    I recall in my psychology course that positive reinforcement vs negative reinforcement/punishment the children with positive reinforcement out perform the others. Now of course that doesn't mean to praise your child whenever they do ANYTHING and that also doesn't mean to just praise them and not explain to them why they deserve it either.
  7. Aug 7, 2009 #6


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    How was performance evaluated? (Did it include a "coping with life" category, or was it more along the lines of "perform, then crash"?) [I'm not trying to be rhetorical.]
  8. Aug 7, 2009 #7
    I am actually studying this right now for an exam on Wednesday. I think that the whole blanket praise thing started after Carl Rogers postulated his theories on conditional positive regard. The idea is that parents unintentionally try to teach their children by withholding their love and respect when children behave in ways that are inappropriate to them. He really tried to push people to give unconditional positive regard, which means letting children know that you love them and you think they are great no matter what. This does not mean heaping praise on them even when they are nasty little miscreants, but by letting them know when they show inappropriate behaviors, that you love them but you do not approve of what they have done. In this way children are not simply performing behaviors to keep your positive regard, but doing so because its appropriate, and avoiding inappropriate behaviors because they understand they are wrong. I think a lot of people take this to the extreme, and fail to deliver consequences for their childrens misbehavior.
    I fondly remember my mother with her "natural consequences" (you lost your coat, youll have to work to pay me back for the new one) and always being told, "I love you, but your behavior is inappropriate, and you have to be responsible for the consequences."

    On the flip side of reinforcement is punishment, which according to Jerry M. Burger, the author of my text book, is extremely ineffective. Overall there are a lot of issues with the behavioral/social learning approach to psychology. It relies entirely on laboratory data which is often simplistic and artificial. The theories reduce internal states such as emotion and anxiety to their behavioral indicants. The behaviorist approach has been criticized extensively for the pragmatic approach to issues, and the invalid assumption that a theory is correct simply because a specific therapy is successful. I have no doubt that behaviorism has its place in child rearing, however I certainly would not depend entirely on behaviorist theories!
  9. Aug 7, 2009 #8
    I think some of the things like
    lack of emotional intelligence,
    inability to
    - understand what others need
    - deal with tough challenges
    - being reliable,
    and having unrealistic hopes
    might be related to how children are raised or rewarded.
  10. Aug 7, 2009 #9
    yep, and the study i was referring to in my posts stated that rewarding your children is far better than 'disciplining them'

    I think the comparison they used was mostly based on their behaviour though. As well if it went to show that say you beat your child for talking back it doesn't act as a deterent for them actually talking back.

    i'll try to find the papers in my closet i must still have them somewhere :P
  11. Aug 7, 2009 #10

    Ivan Seeking

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    My parents believed in positive reinforcement: You did what I told you so I won't beat you.

    Spare the rod spoil the child, was the logic of the day. And, frankly, I remember my mother trying to use reverse psychology on me when I was about ten or eleven years old. The problem was that her ploy was obvious to me so it had no effect except to make her look gullable.

    I think it is easy to underestimate children. I have seen plenty of parents [including my sister] who don't realize that their kids play them like a fiddle.
    Last edited: Aug 7, 2009
  12. Aug 7, 2009 #11
    "Before I got married, I had six theories about bringing up
    children. Now I have six children and no theories."
    - John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester
  13. Aug 7, 2009 #12
    I asked my mother what she thought of all this excessive praise. After all she raised perfect children. She said that was an excellent question, but declined to answer it.
  14. Aug 7, 2009 #13
    Anything about positive AND negative reinforcement combined? How does that compare to only positive, and only negative?
  15. Aug 7, 2009 #14
    I'm still searching for the paper. Quick google search has come up with one that rings a bell over at science direct only the abstract is available:


    I just would like to clarify earlier in my other posts when I mentioned about discipline it was meant to only be violent or hostile. A boundary or firm speaking to in MY opinion is not violent or hostile but can still be considered NEGATIVE or DISCIPLINE. Maybe that answers your question?

    I feel we may be dragging this thread off-topic though.
  16. Aug 7, 2009 #15


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    In my experience, children seem to be hard-wired to do things that please their parents.

    I also believe that kids should be allowed to choose their own path in life.

    Combine these two things and raising kids really isn't that hard.

    Sure, there are rough spots (adolescence - yikes :surprised), but really, it's not rocket science. I should add, the first 6-or-so years are *critical*. And then the next 6 years are *crucial*. Then the next 6 are *extremely important*.

    But if you get through those minefields (yikes), the resulting human is actually quite enjoyable.
  17. Aug 7, 2009 #16
    I've noted that when my friends kids get out of hand they yell alot and don't seem to have much success in stopping them. When I see the kids doing something that they aren't supposed to be doing I just give them a look and ask them "Should you be doing that?" and they usually get sheepish and say "No" and then stop doing what ever it was.
  18. Aug 8, 2009 #17
    Hmm I think I was lucky to have three stable balanced reasonable kids. Too bad time flies and they are all adult now. Never did something special. When they were young, I spent every free second enjoying them and interacting with them. Together we develloped all kind of crazy games and silly songs. Raising them was a joy, not a burden.
  19. Aug 8, 2009 #18


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    The article at the end of this post claims that mental development is largely dependent on the emotional development of a child. It even claims that technical skills like math are initially learned through emotion. It especially rejects empty positive reinforcement.

    It's main point is that interacting socially and emotionally with your child will give her a strong emotional development which will strengthen her ability to learn.

    Perhaps both positive and negative reinforcement are effective teaching tools simply because they teach through emotions related to punishment/reward and encourage emotional development. If I recall, positive reinforcement is supposed to be more effective than negative, but there's probably a more effective method all together.

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