As a (cognitive) behavioral psychologist, I often instruct parents to use rewards to improve child behavior. Research shows that people – and animals, actually – respond better to positive than negative. I also encourage parents not to show a lot of emotion when they are setting limits. The calmer the better is our motto. Although it is easy to make a logical, evidence-based argument for this, there is an emotional layer to why it works that I’d like to talk about.
Have you read the children’s version of the book How Full is Your Bucket ? Despite their 4 year age difference, both my boys like it. Of the many books they like to hear repetitively, it is one of my favorites. If you haven’t read it, the basic idea is that when people are nice to you they “fill your bucket” and you feel good. When people are mean, or difficult things happen, your bucket slowly empties and you feel angry and mean toward others. When I say something to my son like “come on, you can do better,” or “stop hitting your brother! You need to control yourself!” I am, in the language of the book, dipping from his bucket. When his bucket is empty, he feels bad, and when he feels bad, he acts badly. As the person with the most emotional influence in his life, my tone of voice sets his mood far more than I like to think about.
Setting limits calmly – without anger, disappointment, or frustration – means not “dipping” from my child’s “bucket.” Even more importantly, when I focus on rewarding his good behavior rather than noticing his bad behavior, I am helping him notice all the good things about himself. I am filling him up, instead of putting him down.