Never Reward Negative Behavior

One of the most important parenting lessons that I ever learned is: “Never reward negative behavior!” That one line can make a world of difference in your family life. It is so simple, really!

Think of the little girl in the shopping cart seat who is whining, whining for candy. We’ve all seen it (and probably lived it too!) The little girl is working up to a loud and annoying pitch, and her exasperated mother is getting more and more frustrated. Ten minutes later, the little girl is gobbling her candy. What lesson did Mother unknowingly teach to her very smart little girl? “If you whine loud and long enough, I’ll give you a treat!” You can bet that behavior will be repeated every time they go to the grocery store!

The husband who forgets to take out the trash (or mow the lawn, or pick up his socks) finds that his wife has become impatient and done it herself. Lesson learned? “If I wait long enough, somebody will do it.”

The child who can’t find his book (shoes, mitt, etc.) and keeps complaining until his mother finally gets up and finds it for him. Lesson learned? “If you bump around complaining long enough, Mom will find it!”

I don’t mean to suggest that loved ones are conniving. It is just human nature—no hurt is intended, but if it works, the behavior will be repeated.  That’s why people pound vending machines!

What about the child who can’t sit still and behave during a class or church service? If the parent gets exasperated enough, they may be taking the child on a trip out into the hall for awhile. What is intended as a punishment really becomes a great reward for a bored child.  Maybe their parent will get distracted talking to someone, and the child can take a long break from church!

I once observed a young mother who was so sweet with her children but suddenly went “deaf” whenever a child whined. She didn’t scold or remind, she just couldn’t hear them, apparently! I was amazed at how quickly her “whiner” changed her voice tone when she could no longer get a response from Mom.

Next time you observe behavior you don’t like, identify the reward. People don’t keep doing things unless there is some kind of payoff. And if you have been roped into “paying”, stop! And the negative behavior will eventually stop too.

Don’t forget the opposite is true:  reward behavior that you want to see continued.  Smiles and hugs and treats and fun should be in store for those who behave well.  If you only pay attention to the kids when they do something irritating, they will learn how to get your attention, and you won’t like it.  Noticing good stuff takes intentional parenting, but the child who hears pleasant comments while they are playing the piano is going to feel a lot happier about the piano than the child who only hears about it when they miss practicing.

Patience pays big dividends.  If a child is making a noise, tapping the table, hitting a drum, singing an annoying tune, making faces, or whatever else annoys you . . . a good strategy is to wait.  He can’t and won’t go on forever.  If you can outlast him, not rewarding that behavior with attention, you will be the victor sooner than you think. But if it irritates you enough to “get your goat” and make you do something about it, he got your attention. Which has its own reward.  Outlasting little annoyances is a good alternative to constant correction.  It’s also a good thing to teach little sisters who are teased and pestered.  It’s no fun to “bug” someone who is “unbuggable”.  Ignore and outlast it, and the teasing will soon disappear.

Now, you know the secret, Mom:  never reward negative behavior.

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