Imagine a situation at work where your boss makes constant demands of you and your co-workers. Every other moment, he’s looking over your shoulder and analyzing your actions. If you do something wrong, he will tell you “no!” or “don’t do that.” Pretty annoying, right? Makes you want to rebel and lash out? Or perhaps it paralyzes you, filling you with fear of making the wrong choice? For almost everyone, the answer looks similar. This is why it is essential that we first understand the effects of positive words on kids.
Human beings generally don’t do well with unsympathetic authorities who constantly punish their thoughts or behaviors. This goes for everyone: toddlers, kids, teens, adults (who are just grown-up children anyway). There is a better way to approach any situation, and that is with positivity and support. That doesn’t mean you should encourage your toddler to continue playing with the broken glass on the floor — but it does mean that there is a better approach for taking disciplinary action.
Punishment Vs. Reinforcement
Firstly, let’s clarify the difference between ‘reinforcement’ and ‘punishment.’ In a behavioral context, ‘reinforcement’ means you are increasing a behavior. In contrast, punishment means you are decreasing a behavior. Try not to confuse this with ‘positive’ and ‘negative,’ which means adding something or taking something away, respectively. These four terms can be combined to sum up what inspires our behavior within any situation: positive reinforcement (PR), negative reinforcement (NR), positive punishment (PP), negative punishment (NP).
Here are some examples of each:
- Giving out a star after a question is answered correctly (PR).
- Permitting a snack after your daughter finishes her broccoli (NR).
- Reprimanding a student who is talking in class (PP).
- Removing the toys of two fighting brothers (NP).
These are all deep and essential topics that deserve further research for anyone interested. But for now, we want to focus on two of which have been shown to yield the best results — positive and negative reinforcement.
The Benefits of Reinforcement
Interestingly enough, negative reinforcement has its place in being great at creating an initial behavior change. We prefer more to run from pain than acquire pleasure! Imagine if you were to be fined $100 every time you ate a slice of cake. Such a thing would quickly change your eating habits, and you wouldn’t have to think twice about it.
That being said, if you’re penalized continuously for doing something, eventually, you’d become resentful and find a way around it. Maybe you’d start eating another sweet food in its place, for example. In the long run, consistent positive reinforcement is what keeps us going. Imagine if every time you made the choice to eat berries instead of cake, you earned $10. Naturally, you’re likely to make that choice over and over again for an extended length of time.
It has been found that intrinsic and extrinsic positive reinforcement is linked to better employee performance. Other studies show that parental socialization of emotions greatly impacts a child’s social and emotional functioning. In general, parents with more positive emotional responsiveness led to children with more positive emotions with their peers. It’s no wonder that the Center of the Developing Child of Harvard University suggests that the single most common factor for children to develop resilience is a relationship with at least one supportive adult. Positive support is what keeps us going.
The Impact of Positive Words for Kids
The expression goes, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” We think it’s about time to throw that one out the window. What we say to and around our children leaves the greatest lasting impact on their lives and ours. Yes, actions speak louder than words, but words are actions! The authors of Words Can Change Your Brain (Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Waldman) write that positive words “can alter the expression of genes, strengthening areas in our frontal lobes and promoting the brain’s cognitive functioning.” They also conclude that even a single negative word can “increase the activity in our amygdala (the fear center of the brain).” They elaborate that this “releases dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters, which in turn interrupts our brains’ functioning.”
As adults responsible for the health of ourselves and those around us, it is paramount that we make a habit of using positive words for now and forever. Both at home and in the classroom.
Helpful Tips for Using More Positive Words with Kids
Positive words for kids are not always easy to find, yet their influence is undeniable. Here’s a list of 6 helpful tips to make your positive speech most effective:
- Be Honest
Children can tell immediately when someone is “faking the funk.” Be sincere above all. Suppose kids start to believe that your encouragement is only for the sake of manipulating their behavior or sparing their feelings. In that case, the effect may be reversed, making them feel even worse in the end.
- Avoid Over-praising
Encouragement and praise are two subtly yet distinctly different things. Suppose you repeat the same phrase like “good job” to your child or student for every single thing. In that case, it loses its power and soon becomes unnoticed altogether. Over-praising can actually decrease motivation and develop narcissistic tendencies. Instead, be specific and tactical with your encouragement so that the child knows you are aware of exactly what they deserve praise for!
- Award Effort, not Ability
When our encouragement is focused on effort rather than results, we promote a ‘growth mindset’ in our kids. This is part of the investigative learning process, where success attributes to personal effort and striving. This also creates reliance and hope in the learning process.
- Avoid the Need to Compare
Encouragement that uses social comparison teaches kids that the goal is winning, not learning. For some kids, comparisons can make them work harder and set higher goals. For others, the effect can be diminishing. Instead of focusing on what’s lacking in one child that’s present in another, focus on what’s positive in each child.
- Positive Rephrasing
It is still important to teach kids right from wrong. Essentially, it’s all about choosing the right words. For example, if your child is picking their nose, instead of saying “stop picking your nose,” you can say, “let’s put some tissues in your pocket in case you need them”. This, in turn, also helps to promote independent thinking. *link
- Be Positive with Yourself
Remember that you too deserve positive words, so be sure to use positive words with yourself. Just like with kids, how you encourage yourself will imprint onto your beliefs, affecting your actions. Creating a habit of self-forgiveness and motivation is the best way to demonstrate this core value to those around you.
- Be Honest