The very basis of socially acceptable behaviour is clear communication from parents. Often parents will simply call out in a stern voice: “Jane” and expect the child to understand this command. But Jane could be shoving cake in her mouth with both hands while watching TV.

So which behaviour is her parent referring too? Depending upon Jane’s age, she could be genuinely confused about why her mother is saying her name in an obviously negative manner. Children must learn (through experience and example) what is right and wrong, socially accepted or not. It is the responsibility of the parent to instruct the child in these finer points of etiquette.

Parenting does not have to involve complicated psychological strategies. Behaviour Modification is best kept simple, however, timing is crucial. Parents can become confused and find that they reward the negative behaviour and punish the positive behaviour.

Often when a child is watching TV quietly or working away at a game or hobby the parent will use this time to rush around and clean the house; effectively ignoring the child. Then when the child is displaying negative behaviour, they will call out to the child or go to the child and in some way give the child attention and hence positively reinforce that negative behaviour. To reduce the confusion between positive and negative behaviour, let’s examine these more closely.

Operant Conditioning: Positive and Negative Reinforcement

An easy way to remember these is: Reinforcement is increasing a desired behaviour, (Bukato et al., 2001). Positive reinforcement is increasing behaviour by adding to it. Negative reinforcement is increasing behaviour by taking something aversive away.

Hence, rewarding a child’s behaviour by giving them something, a smile, hug or gold star is positive reinforcement. If Sally plays quietly with her toys, a hug from her Mum is a positive reinforcement.

Alternatively, if Sally was to throw her toys at the TV and her mother takes away the toys or gives Sally five minutes Time Out in the bathroom, this is negative punishment. If John does his homework before 7:00pm and he doesn’t have to wash the dishes, this would be considered negative reinforcement.

Often, parents find themselves rewarding a negative behaviour. For example if a child cannot sleep at night and cries, parents will often go to the child and hold, cuddle and rock them back to sleep. This behaviour is exemplary when the child has a sleep disturbance.

Often, however, because the child enjoys being hugged, cuddled and rocked, they will learn that by crying during the night they will receive this attention. So a habit can form where the child has learnt to wake during the night to enjoy their hugs and cuddles, and parents have inadvertently positively reinforced this behaviour.

Observational learning: Children can learn behaviours through the observation of others, when this occurs it is called imitation (Carlson et al., 2007). Parents need to be aware that they must model for their children the behaviours they want their children to adopt.

Time Out (and other simple Behaviour Modification Strategies)

For minor negative behaviours such as whining or when a child is just grumpy, it can be effective for parents to simply ignore this behaviour. It’s known as, “Ignoring Inappropriate Behaviour”. The child receives no attention for this behaviour, in fact all attention (looking at the child, the parent may turn their head away) is withdrawn. These minor negative behaviours normally decrease due to that lack of attention received.

Be sure to give the child clear, succinct commands and always reward the child with verbal praise or a quick hug to illustrate that by following your instructions you, as the parent, are happy.

Do not give long explanations; the child can become confused especially with young children whose attention spans are not particularly long. Time out is a technique of removing the child from the situation and taking them to a neutral area.

This is particularly useful when children have temper tantrums, are fighting, or partaking in a behaviour that could cause harm to themselves (Bukato et al., 2001). It is usually suggested that Time Out last one minute for each year of the child’s age. For example, two minutes in time out if the child is two years old, three minutes in time out if the child is three years old.

Always place the child in a neutral place such as the bathroom, so that they can sit quietly for the time. To place a child in their bedroom could be a reward because they can then play with their toys while waiting for their parents. Don’t leave the child in the bathroom for any longer than the allotted two or three or four minutes.

Parents Talking with Children

It can often be difficult for parents to find the time to have an in-depth talk with their children when so many demands are made upon an individual’s time.

However, quality time is essential to nurture positive relationships with your children and making the opportunities for them to speak with you about their day. For example some parents take advantage of the times when they are stationary, such as when they are peeling the vegetables, preparing a meal or doing the ironing. They invite their child or children to sit at the bench or table to speak with them while they are at the kitchen sink.

Basic communication skills such as active listening, using encouragers and asking open ended questions will encourage children to talk and open up about their day. Actively listening to another individual shows that we are interested in what they have to say and it indicates that they are important to us. For children, there is nothing more important than to feel important to their parents; it reinforces a sense of self worth, which increases self-esteem.

This reflects the Authoritative Parenting style, where parents treat their children with respect, ask and don’t demand, and take an interest in what their children do and like. Parents also need to be aware of their own body language when speaking with their children.

Parents can sometimes forget that they do tower over their children, and the child often has to look up to communicate with their parent. This is considered a submissive position to be in.

To overcome the physical barriers to parent/child communication, parents may need to be more aware of the tone of their voice and facial expressions, also consider whether it is sometimes better to bend down to speak to the child or continue standing.

Enjoying Your Children

Sometimes parents can become entrenched in responsibility and forget that it is equally important to have fun with their children.

Quality time is about enjoying time with a loved one or someone important to you. Quality time does not have to be serious time, or sitting together time; it can be playing a game in the backyard, going to watch a movie together and then talking about every good or bad aspect of the movie afterwards. Quality time is spending time together and it should be fun and enjoyable.

Examples of fun can be anything that the parent/s and child/ren enjoy doing together. It could be camping, partaking in a hobby together, and flying paper planes together; whatever the family enjoys doing together.

To understand what fun is, or to decide what “having fun” means to the family, a family discussion could take place, where questions can be asked such as: what does fun mean to you; how do you know when you are having fun; how do you feel when you are having fun; What barriers stop you from having fun?


  1. Bukato, D., & Daehler, M. W., (2001). Child development: A thematic approach. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  2. Carlson, N., Heth, C., Miller, H., Donahoe, J., Buskist, W., & Martin, G. (2007). Psychology: The science of behaviour. USA: Pearson Education Inc.