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Don't Force Change. Nurture Change.

Bribing seems to be a good way to make a person do what we desire. We can lure children into eating healthy foods by saying that it is sweet and tasty, or bait them to study harder for an exam by rewarding them for a better grade.

"My child never listens and is not interested in anything; he has no desire. I cannot make him do anything."

If a particular behavior attracted the right type of rewards, it had a high probability of being repeated (Schacter, Daniel L., and Gilbert Daniel, 2011).

Unless the child has no behavior at all, such as sleeping all day or having no desire to eat, he or she must like or be interested in something for certain behavior to occur.

For example, children like to eat candy because candy has sugar and it tastes good. Getting candy in any way they can is motivated by the sweet tastiness. Another example, with parent’s encouragement, children tend to overcome difficulties. Gritting is motivated by parents' encouragement.

In simple, if a proper reward is presented after the behavior, that behavior will occur often..

The problem is, what are the proper rewards for each unique child? Because each one of us is attracted toward something different in different degrees.

According to Schacter, Daniel L., and Gilbert Daniel, if a particular behavior attracted the right type of rewards, it had a high probability of being repeated. By definition, something that is given after the behavior increases the frequency of such behavior.

In psychology, the reward is called a “reinforcer.”

A reinforcer is something that increases the likelihood that a specific behavior or response will occur. A positive (+) reinforcer is something that is given to increase a desirable behavior; while a negative (-) reinforcer is something that is reduced to increase a desirable behavior. See the diagram below to understand the very basic mechanism of how reinforcement works for animals and humans alike.

Some parents doubt the effectiveness of reinforcers, stating that the whole theory is a flaw. However, it must be understood that reinforcers should be applied ONLY when the frequency of the desired behavior is increased.

Remember: Effective reinforcers vary from individual to individual, because we each value rewards differently. What parents consider to be rewarding is often very different to a child’s idea of a reward, thus it is important to find out what specific rewards our children deem rewarding, in order to make reinforcement effective.

In tennis, you can hit (or use reinforcement) as hard as you can, but the shot just won't be as strong as hitting the sweet spot (proper reinforcers).

How do pros find the sweet spot? Hit the tennis ball as many times as possible.

How do pro parents find the reinforcers? Talk to their children as much as possible and understand their children in depth.

What do they like to eat? Or drink? What do they like to do? Or play? What do they like to watch? Who do they like to be with? What do they like to learn? What do they like to hear?

However, we do not want our children to be materialistic, only doing things for selfish possession and neither do we want to ourselves to become this way. Once we know all the elemental interests from our children, we should start asking WHY in order to understand the meaning behind the reinforcers.

Highly inquisitive children are looking for something more long-term. Thus parents need to observe and see if they can link the meaning to the current action change.

“Meaning is something truly unique to each person – separate and independent.” (Jean-Paul Sartre, 1946).

Parents discuss the meaning and demonstrate their action for the meaning as a role model (see Role Modeling). Children will follow because the meaning now becomes a reinforcer, the ultimate reinforcers that create the meaning of life.

  1. Talk to children every day to understand their excitements in life.

    • Let the children talk freely about everything.

    • Observe emotional changes from one conversation to another.

  1. Find the reinforcers to change behavior according to the operant condition (dog diagram above).

    • Positive emotion such as excitement or happiness - positive reinforcer.

    • Negative emotion such as upset or anger - negative reinforcer.

  1. Discuss children's feelings and the meaning from their excitement.

    • If minimal emotion is shown, ask "how do you feel about it?"

  1. Demonstrate as a role model to represent the meaning for the children.

    • Teach or discuss about the meaning toward a certain topic.

    • Demonstrate and teach how the meaning can transform to a behavior, usually a desirable one.

  1. The meaning ultimately becomes the reinforcer for the desirable behavior.

    • Continue educating children and keep creating meaning for more desirable actions.


Schacter, Daniel L., Daniel Todd. Gilbert, and Daniel M. Wegner. Psychology. New York, NY: Worth, 2011

Sartre, Jean-Paul. "Existentialism Is a Humanism, Jean-Paul Sarte 1946." Existentialism Is a Humanism, Jean-Paul Sarte 1946. Nagel, n.d. 26 Oct. 2016.

Which Category of Operant Conditioning is It? - Diagram for Positive and Negative Reinforcer (dog diagram)


Michael is an independent college counselor, counseling 8th- through 12th-grade and California Community College students. He assists students to identify strengths and weaknesses, design education paths, teach study skills, plan class selection and extra-curriculum, prepare for SAT/ACT, and college admission. Michael earned a bachelor's degree in Neuroscience from UC Berkeley and a master's degree in Psychology from Pepperdine University.

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