Many years ago, when I took Psychology 101 as an undergrad, I learned a very important lesson about motivation that has always stuck with me: positive reinforcement is always far more effective than negative reinforcement. Here’s an example of that concept in practice:
I have an ancient laptop that I let my kids use for watching YouTube videos and playing online video games. My 7-year-old would spend the entire day with his eyes glued to the computer screen if I would let him. In fact, his computer usage was becoming a major problem. It got to the point where I felt like I was constantly yelling at him to get off the computer and do his chores, do his homework, go outside and play, etc. It was a never-ending battle to try to pry him away from that computer and get him to do anything else.
One day, I had finally had enough and took the laptop away completely. I closed it up and put it away on a high shelf. I explained to my son that he needed to take a computer vacation. Of course, he had a melt-down. And I was left wondering how in the world I was going to keep this from happening again when I eventually let the kids have the computer back.
Then I remembered that whole positive reinforcement vs. negative reinforcement concept. Up to this point, I had been using negative reinforcement to try to limit my son’s computer time. Instead of being proactive in my family’s electronic usage policies, I was waiting until it was a problem to attempt to put a stop to it. To counteract this problem, I would need to find a way to stop it from becoming a problem to begin with.
My solution was to first follow through with my enforced computer vacation. Because, let’s face it, he really needed that break. He also needed the opportunity to remember what it was like to have zero access to a computer. When I finally brought the laptop back out, it returned with the following new rules attached.
- No computer usage until all homework was complete. Yes, this should have been a no-brainer. Yet, somehow, my son would come home from school every day and manage to get his face planted in the computer screen before I could get him sat down to do his homework.
- No computer usage until all regular chores were complete. Another no-brainer. However, since I had never sat him down and specifically outlined the rules, he felt justified in resisting my efforts to tear him away from the computer screen to get his chores done.
- No automatic computer privileges “just because.” I explained to my son that the computer was a privilege, not a right. He doesn’t get to use the computer just because it’s there and he feels like using it. He now has to earn his computer time. As long as his homework and regular chores are complete, he can do an “extra chore” to earn an hour of computer time. And he has to ask. He can no longer assume it’s okay for him to just go use the computer whenever he feels like it.
My son wasn’t happy with these new rules in the beginning. However, I reminded him of what it was like to not have the computer at all, and he (to my surprise) adjusted to the new rules within just a couple of days.
This change took place about two months ago now, and I am pleased to report that I have barely folded any laundry since. Every day, without fail, my 7-year-old comes home from school and asks me if I have any extra chores for him to do. Of course, there is *always* laundry to fold, so that’s my go-to extra chore for him.
Being proactive as a parent – using positive reinforcement up front to encourage right behavior rather than waiting until wrong behavior occurs and then punishing – has vastly reduced the amount of time I spend yelling at my kids. I no longer have to yell at my son to get off the computer. He earns his time, I set a timer so he knows when his time is up, and when that time is up, he gets up and walks away. Plus, I no longer have to fold laundry. Talk about a win-win situation!
Whenever I find something that works for me in the “real world,” I always find myself asking how I might be able to apply that concept to my writing. For example, how can I set up a positive reinforcement environment that would encourage me to sit down and write regularly rather than heaping guilt on me when I don’t?
I have seen that positive reinforcement is far more effective than negative reinforcement. So, why do I assume that I can force myself to write more by beating myself up when I do not meet my goals? I am still looking for an answer to this question. What do you think? How would you use positive reinforcement to instill discipline in your writing practice? Please share your ideas in the comments below.