Most parents want to teach their children skills, behaviors, and character traits which will last and even be improved upon well into adulthood. One of the keys to teaching that lasts is using natural reinforcement and natural consequences.
Too often we use contrived reinforcements and limit or eliminate the consequences. While it is appropriate to, with love and mercy, limit some consequences in some situations, it is essential for children to learn, understand, and incorporate the law of natural consequences into their lives. Children who do not learn this at a young age, will either become a sever annoyance to family, teachers, and would be friends, or will experience much more painful lessons at the hand of society.
Natural consequences can be taught in a very natural and common sense manner without getting upset or causing the child to become upset. When a young child spills a glass of milk, if s/he is able, have the child clean it up, and help if necessary. If the glass was spilled because it was too full, the consequence is less milk in the glass at one time. If the child drops the container of milk because it was too large, then the child needs to wait until s/he is a little older and bigger to try it again (and if you told the child to get the container, the cleaning up consequence may be yours).
Natural reinforcement is similarly simple. Sometimes we use contrived reinforcement to teach a child to do something and sometimes this is appropriate because it is more immediate. For example: you MAY need to use pennies or small candies to initially teach your child to put clothes or toys away; but a better reinforcer is praise from you and others, and eventually the good feeling that comes from a clean room. Another example of a contrived reinforcement is something we did with our children for a time when they were young. We had a large bag we called the “gobble monster.” Once a week, at a preset time, either my wife or I would go through the house and pick all the clothing, books, toys, and other personal items left lying around the house by our children. We would then call all the children together and give them their allowance (one of the rare times we used allowances). The children would then have to purchase everything that was theirs and that they still wanted from the “gobble monster.” (The price was the same on a per item basis.) Anything they didn’t want went to the local thrift store or we would put it into storage. Because people are not usually paid to pick up their own items around their own house, money is a contrived or artificial reinforcement. Today, all of my children are fairly tidy and prefer a clean house. Natural reinforcers have taken over from the more contrived reinforcers of their childhood.
Another example of natural reinforcement is when you are trying to teach a child to say please and the child says “please may I have a drink of milk.” Wouldn’t it be silly to say to the child “good job saying please” and give them an M & M? Unfortunately this kind of upside down contrived reinforcement, when a natural reinforcement is logical, possible, and best, occurs far too often. In this case, if possible and appropriate, give the child or tell the child that s/he can have the glass of milk. If not possible, briefly explain why not and either explain to them when they can have a glass of milk or what might be a possible alternative and thank the child for saying “please.”
For additional information references and resources click on the link below.
Natural Reinforcement: Parenting that Lasts