Rewarding Good Behavior vs. Punishing Bad Behavior

2014-03-02 20.09.31My three-year-old (Max) is a pretty typical little guy for this age:  He questions everything in his world, asks “why” to anything you say, and we have a fair share of arguments that can lead to temper tantrums.  Kids are supposed to question everything because they are trying to figure everything out while testing their boundaries.  If you play the “why” game without reserves, things can get very existential for the parent in a hurry as things get broken down to the scientific molecular level.  What started with “Why is the sky blue?” can go from a simple explanation of daylight vs. sunlight, to how blue rays of the spectrum interact with our atmosphere, to the big bang theory.  Sometimes a simple, “Because” can go a long way.  However, if kids do not feel like they can explore their world and question their surroundings they get angry, moody, and throw tantrums.  Somewhere in between total exploration of their space and trying to control them to a T is parenting.  It’s all the grey in between.

With Max we were getting a lot of attitude, frustration, hitting, and meltdown temper tantrums.  We did some simple phrasing and practices to help empower him over the decisions in his life while still trying to maintain the schedule of the family unit which you can read about HERE.  It made a huge difference with the meltdowns but the arguing continued and got worse.  From what I can tell…this is all pretty normal 3-year-old stuff.  With that in mind my wife Kate and I are not seeking to “fix” this time period or avoid it…we are looking to make it easier for both Max and us by giving him tools he can use to figure things out on his own while continuing to test his (and our) boundaries.  What we figured out was we had plenty of things in place to scold bad behavior but not enough to reward good behavior.  What happens when you change the sentence, “Max, if you keep arguing you’ll get a timeout.” to, “Max, if you can stop arguing you’ll get a sticker.”  Both sentences address the behavior and have an outcome.  The first sentence is essentially bait for a 3-year-old exploring their surroundings, we literally say “keep arguing.”  The outcome is a timeout.  So now Max is inspired (or challenged) to push back even more to see how far he can go before getting a timeout.  The second sentence is clearer with a positive outcome.  It asks for him to “stop arguing.”  The outcome is a sticker.  Two sentences seeking the same goal…though one contains a challenge and a negative outcome (threat) while the other clearly states the request and offers a positive outcome of a reward.

With that idea of positive reinforcement for good behavior we modeled a chart like we had for potty training.  We never punished Max for not using the potty…we rewarded him when he did.  Why not the same for behavior?  It seems so simple but the key is consistency and getting the kids to buy in to it.  I created the “Good Behavior Max” chart and stuck it on the fridge where the heaviest kid foot-traffic exists.


It is so simple its stupid.  If he has an overall good day he gets a sticker at the end of the day before bed.  After 3 stickers he gets to pick a “special treat” such as a trip to the DQ for ice cream, the candy store, or an outing like the zoo.  Ice cream is the top contender…go figure.

20140330_170705The first few days Max did not earn a sticker.  He shouted at his teacher and threw a tantrum at nap-time.  FYI, getting your kid’s teachers, grandparents, sitters, etc. to be part of this is crucial…consistency is key.  Then…he finally had a “Good Behavior Day” on Friday.  It wasn’t perfect (never will be) but the positives heavily outweighed the negatives.  He was good at school, good at home, no big arguments, and he asked at dinner if he would get a sticker.  Without hesitation…the answer was, “yes.”  Saturday Max was a kid inspired and would catch himself having bad behavior and would self-correct it and say he wanted to behave well so he could get a sticker.  By Sunday he was a transformed boy and directly following his afternoon nap I made the decision to award the 3rd sticker thus declaring his behavior for the weekend “great!”

20140330_172726It was a 70 degree day so we took a family outing.  Max rode his red scooter, Kate and I pushed Dodge (1) in his stroller, and we walked a few blocks to Dairy Queen for Max’s first ice cream cone.  It was a monumental moment as a parent and I haven’t laughed so hard or smiled so big in a long time.  It wasn’t Max’s first time having ice cream…but it was his first soft serve, his first cone, and the realization that the DQ was walking distance made the sticker chart that much more powerful.  Max was VERY excited.  He chose chocolate and by his own decision gave a bite to his baby brother Dodge…who then followed him around like a baby duck quacking for more bites.  Max obliged and even shared bites with Kate and I.  It was a perfect Sunday afternoon.  Max sported a chocolate mustache as a badge of honor for his good behavior and let me tell you…he deserved it!  The look on his face was priceless.

20140330_172931The wrap up to this little story though is this:  I made the decision to give Max the sticker early and take him for ice cream at 5 PM when we still had dinner with the grandparents at 6 PM and the nighttime routine ahead.  Both are times when Max is most prone to melting down.  Lots of excitement and exhaustion.  I told myself I’d just let it all go in the spirit of the “Great Behavior Weekend” and understanding the kid was hopped up on sugar.  The result?  A great dinner without arguing and an easy nighttime routine.  So this begs the question:  Did Max behave better because he’s aspiring to get more ice cream from his sticker chart or because I lightened up?  Both.  All the positive reinforcement in the world for your kid isn’t worth a thing if they don’t feel like they are getting your approval.  Max felt comfortable to be himself at dinner and while there were times he got loud, argued a little, or got free of the table and ran free through the restaurant…he was happy, ate his dinner, and was kind to everyone.  What more can you ask from a little guy?

When we got home I put a fresh sticker chart up on the fridge and Max’s jaw dropped as if to say, “I have to do it again?!!!”  He looked at me and asked “Why are you putting up a new sticker chart Dada?”  I explained that he had achieved the goal and got his ice cream today…now it was time to work towards the next one.  I saw the rage build inside him as he prepared to throw his body on the floor and scream…then he exhaled and took a close look at the chart and counted the numbers out loud.  “1, 2, 3…then I can have ice cream again.”  “Yup,” I replied simply.  Max thought about this then said, “Next time…maybe I’ll get chocolate vanilla swirl!”  Nighttime routine went off without a hitch.

It wasn’t a “Good Behavior Weekend.”  It was a “GREAT Behavior Weekend!”



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