Most (if not all) of us thrive on positive reinforcement. Have you ever had a job where you were never praised or commended for the work you did—even when you went above and beyond your job description? At best, you may have questioned your value to the company and felt unappreciated, discouraged, and maybe even lost motivation for your daily tasks. At worst, you may have felt anger toward your employers.
The same is true for our kids. Their sensitive human souls crave positive reinforcement in order for them to thrive and feel like a successful member of the family. When kids are praised, they are motivated to continue their good behavior—whereas negative or uninterested interaction could easily create an opposite effect.
In many conservative households, the expectation is that children obey immediately, happily, and without question. The kids are required to be on their best behavior at all times. Technically, there’s nothing wrong with this. The Bible tells children to “obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (Ephesians 6:1). It’s even in the Ten Commandments: “Honor your father and your mother.” (Exodus 20:12). But we forget how hard it is to obey, how much effort it really takes a child to do as he is told. Thus, a child’s obedience or positive behavior is often not even acknowledged because “that’s what kids are supposed to do.” The punishments threatened for disobedience far outweigh the praise received for a job well done.
Parents should teach their kids obedience and also discipline them when necessary. Not only is obedience a biblical mandate, it’s also a very important life skill. When kids learn to obey their parents, they are learning how to obey God when they are no longer under a parent’s protection and guidance. But where we often fall short is letting our kids know when they’ve succeeded and helping them understand that everyone benefits in the end when they make good behavior choices.
Let’s look at our own relationship with God. Even though our Almighty Creator is deserving of our unquestioning compliance, He has still graciously promised that if we live a life of obedience, He will bless and even reward us (Psalm 1:1–6; 24:15; Matthew 6:1–18; Mark 9:41). This doesn’t mean we’ll always receive something tangible (although it can happen on occasion). It does mean that He will continue to bless the intangible aspects of our lives—our relationships with Him and others, our Christian witness, our spiritual growth. He will give us joy and peace when we obey. These blessings motivate us to serve Him more and cultivate obedience out of gratefulness for His care and provision.
It’s the same in our relationship with our kids. We don’t always need to give a big “reward” or overly praise our kids for making good choices every time—that would defeat the purpose! In some situations, it can be an effective teaching tool. But we need to avoid creating an environment where the child only obeys in order to receive rewards or praise. That's not the point of obedience; we obey God as a result of our love for Him—not for what we can get out of it.
Providing loving positive reinforcement for various situations throughout the day or week can help our kids understand that their good behavior creates positive results. This can be done with a big smile; a hug; statements like “That was a good choice,” “Good job,” or “Thank you for obeying Mommy/Daddy;” and even the occasional toy, monetary reward, extra dessert, or special outing. Find a balance that works so that the reward or praise is not expected but rather a pleasant, happy surprise.
One of the greatest outcomes of focusing on positive behavior will be that our children will understand how to obey out of love and thankfulness rather than a simple fear of punishment. When we “bless” our kids for their obedience and good behavior, we’re giving them motivation to continue making good choices. Positive reinforcement lets our kids know that yes, they did it right, and good things come from making good choices.
Rebekah Largent is a mom, a wife, and a writer/editor. After many years in the children's curriculum industry, she switched over to Internet ministry at Got Questions Ministries as a writer and editor. In addition to editing and writing articles for GotQuestions.org, she also manages the GQKidz.org website.