You’ll have days when you wish your child hadn’t learned to walk and talk after all. “Don’t put your shoe on the table.” “Be nice to your sister.” If you give more attention to negative behaviors, your child will likely display negative rather than positive behavior, according to Dr. Stacey Solomon, psychology and counseling chair at Caldwell College in New Jersey. Make a conscious effort to reward your child for being good, and your life will get easier.
Intangible rewards -- words of praise, working with a parent on a task -- appeal to children and increase the desired behavior. “Wow! You worked hard!” shows you approve. For very young toddlers, use verbal praise and high fives. Parents underestimate the effectiveness of intangible rewards and don’t use them enough, Solomon says. Children take great pleasure in “overhearing” their parents genuinely praise them to another adult or in social situations. When praise is immediate, frequent, enthusiastic, descriptive and varied, it decreases disruptive behaviors and creates positive interaction between you and your child.
Parents begin to rely on tangible rewards -- stickers, stuffed animals, play dates, favorite desserts -- when it’s harder to bring about a specific behavior. Potty-training and eating their fruits and vegetables usually spark the onset of tangible rewards. You should set the bar low at first so you can reward your child easily and often when he exhibits the desired behavior. Speak to him about your motivation for using a reward system. He must value or want the reward, so involve him in the process. Add an element of surprise with grab bag items and mystery rewards.
If you want to reinforce a new behavior in your child, provide an immediate reward, Solomon says. Rewards work best when they are applied quickly and with enthusiasm. At first, reward the desired behavior every time. Gradually decrease the reward as your child exhibits the correct behavior regularly. If he falters, increase the frequency again. Long-term rewards and charts are not as effective with toddlers and preschoolers as they are with older children. Nevertheless, tailor your reward system to meet your child’s needs.
A note of caution: Even toddlers can make compelling attempts to manipulate you to increase the amount or frequency of a reward. The golden rule for selecting reinforcements is that they should be inexpensive and not take a lot of time to grant. Parents rely on extrinsic rewards for many reasons, yet other strategies are also effective in obtaining similar results, says Solomon. Parents can incorporate the use of a story into an undesirable activity, encourage imaginative play or offer a choice of two options.
Consistent follow-through, especially when you initially adopt a reward system, is a crucial factor of whether it will work. A child will determine the worth of the reward system based upon the signals they receive from your level of attention to and enthusiasm for it.