Positive Child Reinforcement: How to Motivate Your Child to Behave

CME WebsitesBehavior, Discipline

What you SAY is What You Get

Did you ever think about the similarities between your baby’s brain and a brand new computer waiting to be programmed? While this may be scary, it is also very good news!! YOU have the ability to alter how your computer, I mean child, performs based on the programs you give them.

Envision your bundle of joy being placed in your arms and noting something on their little belly – a keyboard! Through this keyboard, you have the ability to influence their behavior, development and self esteem. Now, surely there is not a keyboard appendage on any human being. However, it is the words, spoken around your child and directly to your child, that act as their programming.

The human brain is like a computer, in that it acts upon whatever programs it receives regardless if they are true or false. Imagine walking across a freshly cut field of grass. When you look back on your path, you may see some bent over blades of grass that will soon pop back up, virtually erasing the fact that you walked there. However, if you repeatedly walk this same path, it will eventually wear down to a hard path of dirt with an obvious pathway. You can actually walk the path without even thinking about it and possibly with your eyes closed! Well, scientists have studied our brains and found that we use the same methods to create “pathways” for our functioning. The first time you receive new information, or a program, there is not much evidence. But, when this program is repeated, the brain actually sends chemical nutrients to this pathway to strengthen it. This process essentially builds a super highway so that your body can be on cruise control next time it needs this program.

So, when your child first enters this world, they look to you for these programs to build their super highways. When you are speaking and interacting with your child, they are receiving so much information from your words, emotions, facial expressions, and bodily reactions. When they receive this feedback, their brain works hard to deliver chemical nutrients to those pathways, strengthening them.

Unfortunately, most parents fall into the trap of talking about the things that aren’t going so well and yes right in front of their child or sometimes even to the child. Do any of these sound familiar:

  • Janie is such a picky eater. She only eats pizza. She won’t even touch or look at a fruit or vegetable.
  • Mikey is so bad! I feel like all he does is tantrum. He just doesn’t listen to a thing I say!
  • Terrible Twos! Get ready, everything is a struggle!
  • Billy is a terrible sleeper! He hasn’t slept through the night since birth!
  • Ah, Suzie, you are so shy! You are just afraid of everything, aren’t you? Goochie, goo!!
  • Johnny, math just isn’t your thing. You were never good at it.

I know guilty as charged. We have all made these mistakes. But the good news is, these programs can be overpowered by positive ones! Here are some examples on how to transfer the above challenges into positive programs.

  • Janie is so brave and wants to try new foods. She even watched me eat a strawberry and smiled! I am so proud of her for being excited about strawberries!
  • Mikey’s so good at letting us know how he feels. He’s keeping calm and listening to us better every day.
  • Terrific Twos! I love how they work so hard to become independent little people at this age. What fun!
  • Billy is sleeping better every night. He is going to be sleeping through the night very soon. He is fully rested every day and so am I!
  • Suzie, you are so brave. I am so proud of you for being with so many new people. I love how you keep your body calm the whole time! New people are so fun to meet!
  • Johnny, you are getting better at math every day! I am so proud of you for working so hard! You are getting a better grade this year than last, I just know it!

If you are like me, you may feel like this is lying. But really you are just being intentional about the programs that you are putting in your child’s computer. The most powerful thing is when they become old enough to speak (out loud or to themselves) these programs. They will learn them from you!

Be extra aware about speaking around your child. It is human nature to want to listen to “gossip.” People hold more value to what they hear spoken about them to someone else rather than what is spoken directly to them. For example, if someone told you “Wow, you look really nice today”, you would be flattered. However, if you heard them tell someone else “Wow, did you see Sally today? I love how she did her hair, and I love her dress. She looks really good!” you would be EXTRA flattered. The same holds true when our children hear us talk about them to someone else. Be sure that they are hearing good things. For example, when your spouse gets home from work, it would be very damaging to your child for them to hear the laundry list of things that they did wrong. However, it would get you a ton of merit with your child’s behavior if you listed off everything that your child did great! And, you will feel so much better dwelling on the positive aspects of your day. It’s a win-win situation!

This will take time to develop this as your new habit. Be patient with yourself, but be intentional about what you speak and you will see the results. What you SAY is what you get!

Here are other tips to motivate a toddler:

  • Slow down and make sure your child has time to go at his own pace.
  • Give warnings or advance notice before transitions. For example, ‘After we clean up, we are going to eat dinner.’
  • Don’t ask questions your child is likely to say ‘no’ to, and don’t take ‘no’ too seriously when a toddler says it.
  • Use distraction and substitution. ‘You can walk or I’ll carry you.’ You can be sympathetic, but the child must know they cannot always have their way.
  • Explain, but do not talk too much. Keep directions, rules, and explanations simple.
  • Be friendly, not angry in your firmness. If you keep your feelings under control, it will be easier to keep your child’s feelings under control.

1. Helmstetter, S. (2003). Who Are You Really And What Do You Want? Park Avenue Press.
2. Helmstetter, S. (1982). What to Say When You Talk to Yourself. New York, NY: Pocket Books.