By Dr. Jan Hittelman

Motivation is a key ingredient to success in school and in life. In addition to teaching our children to be intrinsically motivated, as parents we often need to motivate them to do things they would prefer to avoid. Too often we threaten negative consequences as a motivator, a current favorite being “taking away electronics”. In addition to creating unneeded tension and stress within the family, research consistently shows that positive incentives far outweigh punishments in terms of learning. Even when we do try to use positive incentives, too often we get focused on material rewards. While these can work in the short-term, they tend to have a novelty effect and become less motivating over time. Many parents don’t realize that they have much more powerful rewards at their disposal. Two of the most effective ways for parents to motivate their children are positive feedback and attention.

The best way to teach your child appropriate behavior is effective use of positive feedback. Unfortunately, in most households, there is much more negative than positive parental feedback. Negative feedback only tells us what we’re doing wrong, positive feedback provides needed guidance as to how we’re supposed to behave. Unfortunately, negative feedback comes naturally, positive feedback takes more effort. But the effort is well worth it not only in terms of the resulting desirable behavior but also the healthier parent-child relationship.

Most parents are unaware of the power of parental attention. Moreover, as parents we accidentally reinforce our children’s negative behaviors with negative attention. That’s why we find ourselves yelling at our kids about the same behaviors that seem to just get worse and worse. You know you’re in trouble when you hear yourself saying: “How many times have I told you?” It is important to understand that children need our attention like food or water and they will do whatever we teach them to do in order to get it. Conversely, by rewarding desirable behaviors with our time and attention, we can dramatically increase the frequency of that behavior occurring in the future. While this is most powerful with younger children, teenagers continue to secretly want your approval more than ever, despite how they may act.

So consider what your child has been doing right, and be sure to genuinely let them know how much you appreciate it.