Apr 012014


Molly Skyar - Family

Mother of two young kids, Molly Skyar interviews her mother, Dr. Susan Rutherford, a Clinical Psychologist, about how to use positive reinforcement as a discipline tool.

Question: How can I create a successful discipline program using positive reinforcement?

WVM April 2014 Molly FAMILY ImageMolly: This question came from a mom based in Boston, Massachusetts. She’s wondering how she can help change her four-year old daughter’s behavior using positive reinforcement instead of nagging all the time.

Dr. Susan Rutherford: I’ve found that using a sticker chart can be enormously effective in helping to change behavior while keeping things positive and less contentious.

Of course, she’ll want to match the chart, behavior tracked, and rewards to the age of the kid. Children catch on to this concept very rapidly, which makes the practice very effective.

For young children, we would want to keep the chart fairly limited, so the rewards are attainable over just a few days. Two- or three-year olds need to have more frequent experiences of reaping the benefits from good behavior to maintain motivation, while four-year olds may be able to handle higher expectations and more delayed gratification.

The most important thing is to engage the child in the process of setting up the expectations and the corresponding rewards. There are a lot of interesting things that come out of this exercise. One is that, as a parent, you get some insight as to how your child’s brain works.

While children may suggest harsher penalties for infractions than a parent would, they may also suggest unrealistic expectations that are too difficult to achieve as deserving of rewards.

The parent’s job is to identify realistic expectations that are achievable for the child.

Molly: And, really, the chart isn’t at all about consequences or punishments; just the opposite it’s focused on the behaviors the parent wants to change by keeping it positive rather than negative.  Right?

Dr. Rutherford: Yes.

Molly: Behaviors like saying “Please” and “Thank you”…?

Dr. Rutherford: Yes.  I’m suggesting sticker charts be used to identify and positively commemorate desired behaviors.

Molly: So, as parents we shouldn’t set it up that we mark the chart every time the child doesn’t say “Please” or “Thank You”?

Dr. Rutherford: No, that would be a punitive chart whereas we want this to be a celebratory endeavor, so instead mark the chart when the kid does say “Please” and “Thank You”.

Molly: You mean every time the child says “Please” or “Thank You”, he or she gets a sticker on the chart?

Dr. Rutherford: Yes, exactly. The parent can offer gentle correction by quietly pointing out times when the child doesn’t use courtesies when he or she should have by saying, “This is one of those times when you could have said “Thank You” and gotten a sticker. It’s ok you forgot this time, but next time I know you will remember.”

This brings up the idea of redemption, which is so important. The child must understand he or she will always be able to redeem themselves in their parents’ eyes or they will lose motivation to please their parents.

Molly: Always keeping the correction really positive?

Dr. Rutherford: Yes.

Molly: When my daughter was four we set up a sticker chart to help her with her manners. Once she accumulated five stickers we went to a bookstore, and she got to pick out a favorite paperback book. So it was like a $3 reward.

Dr. Rutherford: You don’t have to spend huge amounts of money on this.

Molly: Right, it was more than the money, it was the fun of going to the bookstore and feeling like it was her special trip to the bookstore because she earned it.

Dr. Rutherford: Now, for an older child who is, let’s say, seven, eight, or nine, you might think about needing a longer period of time during which to earn the reward.  Maybe a month or two months, depending on the age of the child.  And then it might be one bigger reward. Y ou have to plan this strategy according to the age of the child.

Molly: Maybe the child gets to pick a place to go to a special lunch or something like that?

Dr. Rutherford: Sure, or a game on the computer, or whatever the child values.

Molly: The types of things we put on the sticker chart for my young daughter were around saying “Please” and “Thank You,” using good manners at the dinner table, and not whining and crying when she wants something.

Dr. Rutherford: Those sound valid. For each family it will depend on what the issues are.  A sticker chart may look different for each kid.

Table manners are a good topic for using a sticker chart for positive reinforcement of the desired behavior.  I’m a big believer in learning table manners at a young age so that polite behaviors become innate.  Parents could use stickers to encourage good table manners by telling their children, “I noticed that you used your fork and not your fingers during dinner tonight.  I think that was terrific and deserves a sticker or star on your chart. “

The expectations, durations, and rewards are obviously age related, but it’s all about positive reinforcement rather than negative or punitive consequences.


Molly Skyar and Dr. Rutherford publish “Conversations with My Mother,” an online resource for offering practical parenting tips and psychological insight into raising kids. Dr. Rutherford is a Clinical Psychologist in practice for over 30 years. She has her undergraduate degree from Duke University, a Masters from New York University (NYU) and a Doctorate in Psychology from the University of DenverContact Website Facebook Twitter

Photo Credit – Salvatore Vuono