The Law of Reinforcement: Why Giving In Only Makes Behavior Worse

Find out why “giving in” to a whining, crying, misbehaving child will only create more long-term discipline problems.

“Discipline your children while there is hope. Otherwise you will ruin their lives.” - Proverbs 19:18 (NLT)

As a parent, it’s so tempting to just “give in” when our kids are whining, crying, or misbehaving. We’re often so exhausted, busy, or embarrassed, it’s just easier to give in. But by giving in to our children’s demands simply to avoid conflict, we’re actually paving the way for more bad behavior. In educational terms, it’s known as “The Law of Reinforcement”.


In regard to children, The Law of Reinforcement means if children get a desirable, appealing response to their behavior, they'll repeat the behavior. In other words, if crying, screaming, pouting, or whining get children what they want, you can bet they'll try this technique over and over again.


To illustrate, imagine a mom and her 3-year-old daughter at a store. Suddenly, the 3-year-old starts to scream and cry because her mother won’t buy her a toy. So to avoid the embarrassment and turmoil, the mother gives in and buys her daughter the toy.


Now what does that teach the little girl? It teaches her if she cries and attracts attention, her mother will give her what she wants. You can rest assured the next time they go to the store, the same behavior will happen again.


Every time you give in, expect a repeat of the same behavior—only worse. When parents give in and their children get their demands, it's as if a light bulb appears over their head. These children now have a proven technique of getting their way. It might be begging, whining, pleading, screaming, holding their breath, or throwing a tantrum. Whatever worked for them once will work again. In fact, most bad behavior which keeps repeating has been reinforced somewhere along the way.


Consider Liam. When Liam’s mother told him to go to bed, he threw a tantrum. Instead of being firm, his tired, weary mother said, "Okay, you can stay up 30 more minutes." Liam now knows that throwing a tantrum pays.


Mia wants a cupcake an hour before dinner. When her mother says no, Mia throws herself on the floor and wails. Not wanting to upset her precious child, the mother gives her the cupcake. You can bet Mia will now throw a fit every time she doesn't get her way. Whatever behavior gets good results, will be repeated.


Never Reward Bad Behavior

The solution? NEVER REWARD BAD BEHAVIOR! That means if your children are behaving badly, make absolute certain they don’t get their way.


So if your daughter is screaming for a cookie, make absolute sure she doesn’t get one. If your son is throwing a tantrum to continue playing video games, make absolute sure he doesn’t get to. Because any behavior that gets rewarded, will be repeated.


Stopping Bad Behavior

Stopping a behavior works the same way. Unrewarded behavior will disappear. In other words, if children do not get a satisfying result from their behavior, they'll stop it.


Let’s use the previous example of the 3-year-old who cried for her mother to buy her a toy. Instead of giving in and thus rewarding her tantrum, the mother could have physically picked her up, taken her out to the car, and given her a consequence. That way the child would have learned that crying and whining for a toy does no good.


Let me warn you though. If a behavior has been reinforced in the past, children may try it several times before realizing it doesn't work. Be persistent. It often takes considerable time to undo bad habits.


Only Reward Good Behavior

The Law of Reinforcement works both positively and negatively. To use this law effectively as a parent, never reward bad behavior. Instead, only reward good behavior.


But know the difference between a reward and a bribe. A bribe is promised to the children before they behave correctly. That's how parents get their children to obey in the first place. Bribes are not advised as they cause many long-term problems.


Rewards, on the other hand, are given unexpectedly, after the children have been good. In other words, the children had no idea they would be rewarded for their good behavior.


If you do want to reward good behavior, use words instead of materialistic items. Acknowledge their good works with praise, encouragement, and affection. While an occasional reward is probably harmless, make sure it doesn't become a habitual method of discipline.


Giving in is only a short-term solution. It may save you from the hassles of the moment, but it can cause a lifetime of problems. Remember, the more you give in, the worse the behavior will be.


For more about raising your children with Christian discipline and instruction, get Parenting with Focus by Katie Ely.

Want to meet other parents in your church? Host a small group parenting class. It’s easy with The Parenting with Focus Video Course. Just watch the video and discuss the group discussion questions. Easy—and fun!