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.