Part 2: The Psychological Effects of Positive Reinforcement in Children

Part 2: The Psychological Effects of Positive Reinforcement in ChildrenIn Part 1 I talked about the psychological effects that negative comments have on children. In this post I am talking about the opposite, how you can use positive reinforcement to change and influence the behavior of your child.

This is the central concern of Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change a new book by Timothy D. Wilson, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. Professor Wilson shows us how positive reinforcement can influence the unconscious mind on decision-making, preferences and behavior.

In his case studies, Professor Wilson uses three key focus techniques to not only change the behavior of his focus groups but also influence the outcome of their negative circumstances by influencing their thinking patterns towards their situations.

Redirecting Stories

Our experience of the world is shaped by our interpretations of it, the stories we tell ourselves, and these stories can often become so distorted and destructive that they completely hinder our ability to live balanced, purposeful, happy lives, so the key to personal transformation is story transformation.

Excerpt from Redirect: A New Way to Think About Psychological Change by Maria Popova.

How can we as parents use redirection on our children?

MathsImagine that your child has done poorly in a test at school, his interpretation of his situation is that he is a failure and the work is too difficult to overcome. This negative perception of his failure causes him to not study for the next test and he then gets worse grades. However, if you could help him to interpret the situation as a learning opportunity, you could be the difference in changing his attitude towards his next test by identifying ways that he might study better and work harder to achieve better results.

As parents, we can be the difference in how our children interpret their stories and we can use this technique to help them achieve a more positive outcome.


In an interview with Gareth Cook, Wilson states that: “We all have personal stories about who we are and what the world is like. These stories aren’t necessarily conscious, but they are the narratives by which we live our lives. Many of us have healthy, optimistic stories that serve us well. But sometimes, people develop pessimistic stories and get caught in self-defeating thinking cycles, whereby they assume the worst and, as a result, cope poorly. The question then becomes how to help people revise their negative stories….

How can we as parents use story-editing on our children?

One of the most important things parents do is to shape their kids’ narratives about the world, and there is a chapter in the book on how parents can use story-editing techniques to do this well. For example, parents should use “minimally sufficient” rewards and punishments—ones that are strong enough to shape their kids’ behaviors but not so strong that the kids attribute their behavior to the rewards and punishments.” said Wilson. Read the full interview here.

I have a whole board full of inspiration for chore and reward systems on Pinterest.

The Do good, Be Good Technique

A technique first used by Aristotle, Professor Wilson surmises that we can change our behavior in a certain way and our thought patterns and perceptions of ourselves with follow accordingly. For example, in order to be a hero we need to first act like a hero.

In a case study Professor Wilson tested this technique on a focus group of teenagers with surprising results. The study showed evidence that teens who are encouraged to do volunteer type work felt that they had more stake in their communities and that they were part of something bigger than themselves which then resulted in more responsible behavior and these teens were less likely to engage in unprotected sex thus lowering the statistics of teen pregnancies!

How can we as parents use the do good, be good approach on our children?

If we keep telling our children that they are bad at maths they will a negative, self-defeating attitude towards maths and most likely perform very poorly. Similarly, if we use the same approach and tell our child that he is “always good at figuring out problems” and tell him about a personal experience where we also initially struggled with something before we started working harder at it until got easier, this will boost his self-confidence and make him believe that he is capable of doing it thus he will work hard and most likely succeed.

Powerful stuff!

chores1With a good balance of encouraging good behavior in our children and making them feel like an integral part of the family unit, we are using the “do good, be good” technique. Involving our children in household chores teaches them responsibility but also makes them feel that they have a stake in the home and that they are valued to the other members of the family. This in turn, just like in the case study, will motivate them to do good.

As a parent I will definitely be practicing these techniques in our home. We can’t be perfect parents but if we can raise well-adjusted children with strong values and healthy self-esteem I’d say that’s a job well done!