Behavior Principles

The Effects of Positive vs. Negative Consequences

Children do things to either get something or avoid/delay something. It may not seem important at the moment, whether your child is doing their homework, chores, or anything else in order to get something or to avoid something. If the children are doing the things they need to do, then why worry about it? Well, the long term results of getting something vs. avoiding something are drastically different. Positive consequences really do work much better than negative consequences, and here are some of the reasons.

Positive vs. Negative Consequences  

 Negative Consequences

 Positive Consequences

 1. Produce only enough behavior to avoid the consequence  1. Produce behavior to earn the consequence, plus extra discretionary effort to earn more positive consequences
 2. Reduce child’s ability and desire to behave  2. Increase child’s ability and desire to behave
 3. Reduce parent’s positive influence  3. Increase parent’s positive influence
 4. The behavior takes on the feelings of the consequence  4. The behavior takes on the feelings of the consequence
   5. Behavior will generalize to other behaviors.  The child will become creative looking for good things to do, even in totally unrelated areas.

Item 1 is the basic motivation. If we are avoiding getting in trouble, we only do enough work to stay out of trouble. If we are earning something good, we will work harder than needed to earn the positive consequence, and hopefully more.

Item 2 is the short term effect on doing the behavior. If we are working to just keep out of trouble, then it is frustrating, annoying and upsetting. These negative emotional responses decrease our ability to focus and do what we need to do. When we know we will be getting something good, we are energized, excited and happy. These feelings increase our ability to focus and perform.

Item 3 is pretty obvious. We all like people who build us up. We all like people who give us good things, be it compliments or stuff. No one likes to receive punishment. No one likes to be nagged. And no one feels closer to the person who provides the punishment or does the nagging.

Item 4 has the same words on both sides. In both cases, the behavior takes on the feeling of the consequence. If I am cleaning my room to avoid getting griped at, then cleaning the room feels like someone griping at me. If I get pleasant and positive responses from my parent when I do my homework, then doing my homework feels like hearing good things from my mom or dad.

Based on the above 4 items, over time, behavior that occurs to avoid a negative consequence will get progressively worse. The difficulty of doing the task will increase. The quality of work will decrease, and the pushback from the child will increase. If a behavior occurs because it earns a positive consequence, then it will improve over time. The behavior becomes progressively easier and more pleasant to perform. The child’s ability increases, and even the act of doing the behavior becomes rewarding.

Item 5 is an amazing thing. When behavior is rewarded with positive consequences, the child will actually become creative looking for things to do that please the parent. The child will find things to do that will earn more positive consequences (smiles, kind words, touch, etc). I had a mom with a 3-year-old that she described as her “monster child”. This child gave her mother fits in virtually every category. This child had problems going to bed, getting up, eating, dressing, bathing, going to day care, playing with others, and even going to McDonald’s. The mom turned things around and started noticing good behavior instead of reacting to inappropriate behavior. She got the vast majority of her interactions to be positive instead of negative. A few weeks after the mom did this, the daughter came to her one morning and said, “Mommy, I made my bed. Tell me that I am a good girl, Mommy.” This child had never been taught or asked to make her bed, but she decided that if she did, it would please her mommy. This effect is very typical and to be expected. A mom with 2 teenagers said that once she started using positive consequences, that her 15 and 17 year old kids started complimenting each other, and are complimenting her.

As parents, it is natural for us to react to the things our kids do that we don’t like. We try to step in and stop the problem behavior. We use the negative consequences because they are fast and simple. But, in the long term, we get in trouble this way. The appropriate behavior becomes driven by the negative consequences, and it gets harder for the child to do that behavior and harder for the parent to make him do it. What we need to do is focus on the positive. Catch our kids being good. Recognize and reward good behavior with our words, touch, smiles, and even our stuff. Get the behavior going using positive consequences, and over time (and usually quite quickly), things will get better and better.

Let us give our children good consequences, positive rewards, and recognition. They will be much happier for it, and so will we.


Note: Parenting coach and child behavior expert Tom Dozier can help you and your family if you live in any city in the Bay Area.  The first visit should be at his office in Livermore, but after that, meetings can be held by secure internet telecommunication (similar to Skype).  It is also possible to have the initial meeting with Tom via internet, so it is not mandatory that you travel to Livermore for the first meetings.  Cities near the Bay Area include Alameda, Antioch, Belmont, Benicia, Berkeley, Brentwood, Burlingame, Campbell, Concord, Cupertino, Lafayette, Lathrop, Livermore, Los Altos, Los Gatos, Manteca, Martinez, Menlo Park, Milpitas, Morgan Hill, Mountain View, Napa, Newark, Novato, Oakland, Oakley, Pacifica, Palo Alto, Petaluma, Pittsburg, Daly City, Danville, Dublin, East Palo Alto, Fairfield, Foster City, Fremont, Gilroy, Hayward, Hercules, San Jose, San Leandro, San Mateo, San Pablo, San Rafael, San Ramon, Santa Clara, Santa Rosa, Saratoga, Pleasant Hill, Pleasanton, Redwood City, Richmond, Rohnert Park, San Bruno, San Carlos, San Francisco, South San Francisco, Stockton, Suisun City, Sunnyvale, Tracy, Union City, Vacaville, Vallejo, Walnut Creek, and Windsor.