Child Positive Reinforcement – 3 Studies That Say It’s BAD!

Child Positive Reinforcement – 3 Studies That Say It’s BAD!

If you’re thinking about using positive reinforcement techniques on your child as a way to help them become more obedient, there is some VERY interesting research that’s surfaced lately that might make you reconsider positive reinforcement.

Here’s the study I’m referring to…

In a very fascinating study, researchers took a group of children, split them into two groups and gave them all a tasty drink none of them had ever had before.

One group of children was simply allowed to drink the drink. But the other group was given a small reward after drinking the drink.

Then one week later both groups of kids were put back into a room where that same drink was available.

And here’s the amazing thing they noticed about positive reinforcement!

The group of children who had been previously rewarded for drinking the tasty drink was MUCH less likely to drink the drink on their own free will, then the other group of children, meaning…

The very act of rewarding a child for doing something actually DECREASED their motivation to do it in the future… NOT increase it like so many behavior specialists have long believed is the case.

And in case you were wondering, this is not the only study that’s revealed this phenomenon, hundreds of studies have shown the similar side effect, and seem to suggest that using positive reinforcement to get our children to do things… will actually make them less likely to do it in the future.

Here’s some examples I read about in Alfie Kohn’s book Unconditional Parenting:

  • Children who are rewarded for sharing a special toy with another child, are less likely to share when they aren’t expecting a reward from their parents ie. when Mommy’s not around.
  • Children who go to school in environments where no grades are given out, have been shown to perform better on tests.
  • And children who are paid to complete a puzzle, will stop playing with a puzzle after the experiment is over, while another child who’s just given the puzzle to play with for fun, will play with it much longer.

Here’s a KEY point!

This does not mean that positive reinforcement does not work. It actually works VERY well. But it only works well when the child is expecting to receive an award.

If the child has previously been rewarded for doing something, and is later in that same situation where he does NOT expect to get a reward, he will be less motivated to do it.

But it get’s even worse!

The bigger problem is that there really seems to be a lot of evidence that suggests that positive reinforcement as a technique for getting a child to do something actually TRAINS them to be extrinsically motivated… meaning they’ll grow up to be the kind of adult who won’t do anything unless they have something to gain for it.

And the evidence seems to suggest that these types of children grow up to be adults who won’t share, help, or give their all, unless they’re being compensated fairly to do so; instead of growing up to be intrinsically motivated to do things, even if there’s not an immediate payoff.

Does this mean positive reinforcement is ALL bad?

I don’t think so.  If I ever get the chance to interview or speak with the person who I learned about this concept from, Alfie Kohn, I’d like to ask him how his theory applies to these areas of life:

  • Teaching New Skills/Coaching: I think there are some loopholes in this theory when it pertains to coaching. (Or maybe I’m just fully grasping the concept)  The best coaches in the world either use positive reinforcement, or punishment to get their players to perform better, and I think this is where positive reinforcement can play a role in learning, especially when the thing a child is trying to learn does not have any built in rewards.I know from personal experience as an athlete who played at the highest level of collegiate baseball there is, that it is impossible to get better as a baseball player without being told when you’re doing something right and when you’re doing it wrong.And I think some things in life require praise to be figured out.So it would seem to me that if you’re going to use Positive Reinforcement the key is  probably to use VERY specific praise for something I was seeking advice for how to improve.  Does that mean that when my coach praised me for a good swing I stopped trying?  Absolutely NOT.But then again, maybe that’s because there was always a bigger reward out there in front of me… that maybe some day I could play professional ball.So maybe that’s it, maybe there are some things in life that this rule doesn’t apply to because they have built in rewards systems, where there is ALWAYS something bigger to strive for… and that’s why positive reinforcement works in those areas.

Does this mean you can never praise your child?

I think the biggest takeaway you can get from this article, is that if you ALWAYS use positive reinforcement for every little thing your child does, then research suggests you run a VERY hi risk of training them to just grow up to be approval seekers who won’t be self motivated to do things as they grow up to be adults, unless highly motivated.

Do I think this is the case for everything?


Instead I think the best thing to do is stop using positive reinforcement with your child for things they already get a lot of value from doing.

If your child finds it extremely rewarding to be nice to other children, then don’t reward them for it… they’re already getting rewarded by life’s NATURAL reward system, so why risk sabotaging it just so you can feel better about yourself.

But if you’re trying to help your child do something that’s good for them, but not necessarily intrinsically motivating, then why not reward them for it… especially since life won’t be supplying a reward.

For example, if a child is learning to tie their shoe, they usually can’t figure it out without some guidance, coaching and encouragement.  It’s simply too complicated.  In cases like these feel free to praise your child.  Just be sure to praise specific efforts, like “that was a good job making the loop Jimmy, next you should try doing this”.

Think of it more like being a coach, instead of being a cheerleader.

Do You Agree, Disagree?

Prove to me you’re a living human being with a pulse by sharing your opinion on this topic by commenting below.

Looking for more information on whether or not to use positive reinforcement on your child?

One fascinating article I’d suggest you read is 5 Reasons To Stop Saying “Good Job”

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  1. Michelle says:

    OMG everything I am know and am doing is wrong. This describes my 15 yr old daughter to a tee. Now what, and what can I do for her!!!

    • admin says:

      Michelle, believe it or not, the sign that you’re worried is the most important thing. It proves you care about doing the right thing, instead of the popular thing. That being said, there are some interesting books I think you should read. One is the Punished by Rewards book I mentioned in the post above. And another is Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by Gottman.

      I think you’ll find those two sources provide a RESEARCH based parenting style, where their ideas have been tested… instead of just getting their opinions.

  2. Simon says:

    Raising children is so complicated! Sometimes it seems the more I learn the less I know lol. Thought provoking article.

  3. Emily says:

    I think there are situations where positive reinforcement is needed and times when you need to let the child learn the reward is just completing the task at hand or making a good decision.

    I have a two year old and although I will praise her to encourage her to keep doing the right thing I also love to see the look on her face when she accomplished something on her own. Now, by all means I am not saying that my child does nothing wrong and that I am using the right way to reinforce so don’t beleive that for a second but I sure try.

    You comment on saying good job to your child which is something I try hard to only say when valuable. This one is imbedded in my mind to not say good job just because she ate a bean on her plate or said something nice.

    • Mac Strider says:

      I think you’re right Emily. I think if we praise only VERY valuable, and VERY specific things we are able to protect our children from the negative effects these studies talk about.

  4. Galina Schwartz says:

    I have always believed that positive reinforcement is not always the best way to teach your children. They should know certain things are expected of them and they need to do them.
    I only give them positive reinforcement if they go above and beyond of what’s expected of them.

  5. Derek says:

    I could not agree more. I’m an uncle to 16 and have two dogs, with a baby on the way, but I’ve seen first hand the downside to over praising. And with seven different parenting style to view first hand, I have seen what works better, and I can tell you the nieces and nephews getting praised most often throw the most fits, are meaner, and know exactly what to do to get what they want. But I also think we try to hard to be perfect and micro manage lives instead of just being parents as role models. What’s most important is love, nourishment (healthy diet), and an active lifestyle.

  6. Paul says:

    just let the children be, and explore their own free-will and individuality.

  7. Tawny Anderson says:

    I see this with many moms. They want a responds from their child but don’t want to invest the time to train the responds to come natural. example, giving a child a marshmallow for getting in the car when they ask them to. It should come natural for a child to listen to the parent with out the reward. otherwise they don’t do what the parent asks until the reward is offered.
    I grew up with learning the value of everything. If you wanted something you worked for it. Though I lived on a ranch that made learning work ethic much easier than my friends who only had one chore and that was to unload the silverware from the dish washer. I envied them back then, but look at what I learned from hard work and how that molded me.
    My dad did one amazing thing I will never forget. I think it was great positive enforcement. He took us to the bike shop and let us pick out what bike we wanted. we went home, got to ride our bikes for 1 hour. Then he hung them up on a wall for 1 month. He said if we keep our room clean and our bed made for 1 month then we would get the bike. But if after that we still didn’t keep it clean then it would go back up for 1 month, and we would start all over. I never got my bike taken away. It was a positive reward that didn’t have to keep being given, in fact it was a reward every day I kept my room clean.

    • Mac Strider says:


      It’s funny that you mentioned working on a ranch, because one of the things I hear business owners talk about in regards to hiring, is how they love to hire Military people and farmers or ranchers, because they just work harder… something about having to do those chores and be responsible is at work in those types of environments for sure.

  8. Toni says:

    This makes so much sense to me . . . DON’T reward for things they should be doing anyway!

  9. Robyn says:

    I tend to believe this article. I’m a mom of 3 boys, age 6, 3, and 1 and a special education teacher. At home I use poitive reinforcement specifically for potty training and then sporatically to break up the monotony of some activities such as cleaning or a really tough homework night. I also use it at home and in the classroom when I’m trying to change a behavior pattern. But I don’t think there is anything wrong with giving your child verbal praise for a job well done daily. Telling them you love them works great to.

  10. Betzky says:

    I feel like you really have to know your child either way. You have to know what you want in the end, too. When you send your 18 year old into the big world out there, what is it you want him to be like? What are your parenting goals. I think that these could be great points to consider when looking at your parenting goals.


  11. roclafamilia says:

    Helpful blog, bookmarked the website with hopes to read more!

  12. yinsibet says:

    I don’t necessarily agree. I have worked in behavior modification with children for years and giving praise and having consistent positive reinforcement systems for specific behaviors teach them 1) what exactly is expected of them and 2) that someone will notice them and give them the attention they need when they are learning new ways to deal with previous negative behaviors. There are thousands of studies that contradict the ones outlined above.

    I do agree that you cannot overly praise them for every tiny thing they do because you then overshawdow their own good feelings. They need to beable to feel pride in themselves not always look outwardly for praise. This confidence in their own emotions is necessary – too much praise for every tiny thing will undermine their confidence in reading their own feelings of pride.

  13. Ender says:

    Could you also make a case for the opposite to be true? What I mean is, are there times when life lessons give their own specific punishment rendering a punishment from a parent unnecessary? I’m trying to make a parallel between ‘positive reinforcement’ being inappropriate for something that already has value to it; and ‘punishment’ being inappropriate for something that already has built in punishment or ‘negative value’ for lack of a better phrase. Not sure if I’m being clear,

  14. Kimi jensen says:

    I’ve come upon this article late in the debate but I just want to say that it’s one thing to have a child do something they know they will receive a reward for every time and to randomly reward good behavior without telling them beforehand. It’s called Partial reinforcement and it’s less prone to extinction.
    On a different note..
    This research doesn’t include giving praise as the positive reinforcement, just the reward. I think it’s one thing to give our child a meaningless something to be consumed or lost within a day and another to build confidence that they can do something well. However, praise should be aimed at who they are not what they’ve done. For example while saying “you cleaned the bathroom really well” is good but maybe commenting that you noticed how persistent they were in cleaning the bathroom, or how cheerful they were, or how efficient they were could be better. They can be cheerful in anything and maybe you gave them the confidence to be cheerful in all kinds of situations. They don’t have to clean the bathroom to get that compliment again. Cleaning the bathroom is external to themselves and that kind of praise may last as long as the reward. But praising them for their intrinsic motivations could only help them feel more confident, in my opinion.

  15. Ninja Dad says:

    Wow, interesting article and great conversation in these comments. I’m not sure what to think. On any given day I’m pretty much just making up this parenting thing as I go and this kind of thing confuses me even more. One source says something is good, another discredits it – it’s nutty.

    I just try to go with my gut and hope for the best. That being said, I like rewarding for stuff that my kids do without prior knowledge of the reward. I like it to come out of the blue.


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