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Lesson 21: How To Use Positive Reinforcement to Build New, Healthy Habits


In my last article, I discussed the importance of positive reinforcement and how it is a simple, but essential, part of your parenting toolbox. If you ignore the power of this tool, you will often fail to nurture the positive habits and strong self-esteem needed to thrive.

Today, I will review the formula that makes positive reinforcement work.

1. Growing a Healthy Habit is Different Than Maintaining a Healthy Habit

This distinction is critical in our discussion of positive reinforcement. When building new habits, or patterns of behavior, we must understand that the building phase requires more effort and attention. Once a habit is developing however, we can begin to pull back to a more natural pattern of reinforcement.

2. To Build New Habits, Obsess On Catching Every Moment Approximating the New Habit

When building a new habit or encouraging behavior you would WANT to become a habit, the formula is simple: Catch every instance of the new behavior that you can. Not just a complement here or there, or a ‘nice job’ type of comment. This won’t be enough for most kids.

Instead, obsess on catching EVERY moment you can, which looks like the habit you want to grow! What do I mean by OBSESS? I mean that you do constantly look for these moments which approximate the new habit, and you notice them. Over and over again. . . you keep noticing them!

3. Catch Each Moment NOT with Praise, But With Your Subtle Attention!

This is critical. I am not suggesting that you complement your child 20 times an hour. That’s not it.

I am suggesting, that to build a new healthy habit, you must ‘catch’ those moments frequently in the early weeks, and that you do this with ‘subtle attention.’ Here are a few examples:

• Smile
• Wink
• Thumbs Up!
• Touch on shoulder
• Head nod
• More smiles!

4. Think Boot Camp!

As I describe this obsessing approach, I can already here the moans! And I understand—the thought of this is exhausting.

But here’s the key: You can grow a new habit with your child very quickly, if you take the ‘boot camp’ approach.

While in boot camp, you spend about 4 weeks obsessing on catching the ‘good stuff’ as often as you can. In practical terms, this means that you turn your attention to noticing positive, healthy behavior every 5-15 minutes. Never let 15 minutes pass, without an effort to determine if there is a positive moment for you to ‘catch.’

This is the first stage of boot camp. Then, in stage 2 of boot camp, you gradually transition back to normal as you notice the new behavior has become quite predictable. You might say, almost a habit. So, in order to ensure the longevity of this new behavior, you now begin to taper off to normal over the next 3-4 weeks.

5. Authentic Praise Rocks…Once Boot Camp is Over!

Once the behavior or habit is in place, take a more normalized approach. Don’t be excessive in any way, as it relates to reinforcement.

Instead, focus on authenticity. Notice these healthy, positive moments; but be calm, focus on the moment of positive behavior and keep it simple, but true.