Positive and Negative Reinforcement: A Reflection of how Children View Themselves

Seven-year-old Shreya was having a casual conversation with her mother. As she expressed her views, she was met with a very laid-back remark by her father,

“Oh! Are you that dumb Shreya?”

He did not expect to hear what he did!

“Yes Dad, I am. Specially at Mathematics.”

Shreya’s parents were taken by surprise by the level of under confidence. They failed to understand how a seven-year-old could have such low self-esteem. Within minutes Shreya had tears rolling down her cheeks and no amount of pestering made her speak her heart out.

While I will get back to how her parents managed to unravel this mystery, let me take you to Prashant’s class. A student of Class VI, Prashant has forever struggled to meet the expectations of his parents and teachers as far as academics is concerned. This term he decided to put in a little more effort than usual and managed to clear his Social Science paper. While his score was a mere thirty, an “Excellent” written in bold along side his marks lifted his spirits. Not only this, a little remark by the teacher read, “One extra mark for your effort!”. This was in a long long time that Prashant had received a congratulatory and encouraging note. He was elated beyond words and as he carefully noted down his mistakes in the paper, he promised himself that he would receive more accolades in future.

The two cases cited above are simple, yet often ignored examples of Negative and Positive Reinforcement.

When we talk of Reinforcement, we simply mean building up or boosting or strengthening what already exists. The added words- Positive and Negative are clear enough to be elucidated further. So, what are we trying to impose here?

Mostly, we remain unaware of a whole lot of our actions or the statements that we make because they happen at a very subconscious level. Why the so-called ‘subconscious level’, one may ask. Well, that is another area of study altogether. But mostly, we either do not take our words seriously enough or just make passing remarks. However, these remarks happen to be more than ‘just passing’ particularly in the case of our children. They stay back somewhere in ‘their subconscious’ and every time something similar is repeated, the idea accumulates in their mind and they almost begin to believe in it.

We will now go back to the case of Shreya. A simple mathematics problem in class and Shreya takes a while to understand it while other children seem to zoom past her. The teacher casually says, “Shreya, you are dumb.”

Shreya’s mind registers this. The event is repeated seven or eight times out of ten, every time Shreya fails to get a math problem. It is a very every day, commonplace event and the teacher is not really aware of the way it is building up in Shreya’s mind. To top it all, even while having a normal conversation at home, Shreya’s father puts forth a similar observation about her and reinforces her teacher’s ideas. For him, it is nothing more than a simple statement. But Shreya, who has been registering this observation about her has now begun to believe that she is actually dumb! This is when we, as parents and teachers, unknowingly cause Negative Reinforcement.

I recall this scene from Amir Khan’s much acclaimed movie ‘Taare Zameen Par’ where he talks of the tribes in Solomon Islands who consistently imprecate curses on trees every time they wish to clear the jungle land for other purposes. The trees die a natural death. While the authenticity of the story is not our point of discussion, it conveys a clear message that constant reinforcement of an idea can play big time psychological games!

On the other hand, if we go back to Prashant’s class, what do you think must be happening there? Well, an elated Prashant believes that he is capable of getting that ‘Excellent’ another time and he begins working in that direction. He feels proud to show his paper to his friends and parents and would like to repeat the exercise. His teacher devised a simple way of showcasing Positive Reinforcement and surely an added pat on his back from family will ensure he begins to believe in himself.

The same situation could have been easily played in a different manner. The teacher could have told Prashant that his was a rather low score and he still had miles to cover. Definitely, this negative reinforcement would be enough to make Prashant believe that he was probably not meant for it.

Negative Reinforcements can have serious effects on any child’s self-esteem. Children tend to internalise the responses that adults give them. In case of negative responses, they begin to feel inept without even trying. We often find them getting withdrawn and being fearful.

On the other hand, children who experience positive reinforcement feel good about themselves. They are not scared to try new things because they are not met with discouraging responses even if they fail. Positive responses help them to accept themselves irrespective of success or failure.

If Prashant had been chastised for his score, he would have developed this kind of inner dialogue with himself whereby he would be full of disappointment and rejection. Such a child tends to beat himself emotionally and develops a serious fear of failure.

Many schools of thought, however argue, that negative reinforcement can be best used to discipline a child. If your child refuses to clean up his room after play, take away his toys unless he learns a lesson. Negative reinforcement thus helps disciplining the child. Well, I somehow do not agree with the strategy. The simple logic is that the universe responds to your stimulus. Negativity, thus, breeds negativity.

Another point in this to note is that no parent or teacher consciously tries to work their way using negative reinforcement. However, it is important to consciously try not to use the same! Little did Shreya’s father think that a lame remark by him would make his darling daughter inconsolable. He did not give enough importance to what he was saying. But we often forget that our words weigh heavier than we think. They carry the burden of emotional charges and are taken way too seriously. Hence, their choice plays a significant role in positive reinforcement.

The point is that all the time you are being watched and many of your actions and words are being internalised. You are also constantly responsible for the way your child is going to feel about herself. Whether you choose to do it by creating positivity or negativity is what you have to decide. But the next time you just happen to pull down your child for something, even though it may be unknowingly, just remember how you feel when your boss at work ridicules you for your ideas!

The article first appeared in KEEKLI- An Ode to Innocence and can be accessed at https://www.keekli.in/news/keekli-e-newspaper-2/

The article later appeared in HIMACHAL SCAPE under the title IMBIBING POSITIVE LIGHT ON YOUR ADOLOSCENT and can be read at http://himachalscape.com/vol-2-issue-5/

2 thoughts on “Positive and Negative Reinforcement: A Reflection of how Children View Themselves”

  1. Well I can imagine ..I think in today’s context it is ever required our times I can say I personally went through it ,but I came over naturally well for that I must thank my Wilder wanderings.
    This -ve have to be craved out. Again beautifully written.

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