24 April 2024

Using Positive Reinforcement Establishes Connections

By Associate Professor Hugh Leong

Being a parent holding a full-time job can be a tough and demanding task in this day and age.

Positive Reinforcement Establishes Connections

Parenting is not as straightforward as understanding theories from a book

Like many enthusiastic young parents, I had grand ideas about how I would raise my son as he navigates through childhood. I was aware of the downsides of excessive screen time and the potential speech delays from watching certain cartoons. I would often scoff at parents who gave in to their children’s tantrums. More often than not, it means allowing the child to watch their favourite YouTube channels on their own. All for some peace during meal time. 

From Theory to Reality

As a father to a two-year-old son, I’ve come to face the realities of parenting. It is not as straightforward as understanding theories from a book. One of the topics I frequently discuss with other parents is discipline. As toddlers develop cognitively, exploring their emotions and the boundaries of what they can or cannot do, they inevitably test the limits of their parents’ patience.

The immediate reaction for many parents, especially after a long day at work, might be to scold their toddlers for perceived ‘bad behaviour’. Some even praise the supposed ‘discipline’ instilled in toddlers. This is after rounds of scolding and punishment. This experience has led me to believe that we need to better understand our children. As parents, we need to reconsider our approach to parenting.


I have embraced the principle of positive reinforcement. Praising my son for good behaviour or successful task completion has encouraged him to repeat those actions. The results weren’t always immediate. However gentle encouragement consistently yielded better outcomes than negative reactions.

The Power of Positive Reinforcement

Through these experiences, I realized that scolding rarely imparts the lessons we intend. Scolding, as we all know, often stems from a place of frustration. Instead, engaging with empathy, teaching through guided actions, and reinforcing good behaviours delivers better results. It not only fosters a healthier relationship but also cultivates an environment where learning is natural and encouraged.

In the journey of parenthood, especially as a working parent, the pressures can make the path of least resistance tempting. Yet, the moments we choose patience over frustration, and understanding over reprimand, we don’t just teach our children—we learn from them too.

Every day presents opportunities to mould our responses and our relationships. When we choose understanding and patience over scolding, we not only help our children grow but it also helps us grow as parents.

A Cry For Connection

Toddlers often throw tantrums not just as an expression of frustration or a reaction to limitations, but also as a deep-seated call for attention. Oftentimes this happens to parents who might be absent during the day due to work or other commitments.

After hours of separation, these emotional outbursts can be their way of reconnecting. They might feel unsure about how to communicate their needs or may simply miss the comforting presence of a parent. So they resort to the only method they know will quickly garner attention.

When viewed through this lens, a tantrum is not a child acting out, but a plea for engagement and affection. Recognizing this can transform how we respond to such challenging moments. Instead of seeing a tantrum solely as behaviour to be managed or disciplined, it’s beneficial to approach these situations as opportunities to provide the love and attention the child craves.

By acknowledging their need for closeness right when I return home, I’ve significantly changed the evening dynamics with my son. Spending the first few minutes together, focusing solely on him by reading a book, playing a simple game, or simply cuddling, helps soothe his need for attention and often pre-empts the onset of tantrums.

This approach not only helps in calming the immediate storm of a tantrum but also reinforces the emotional bond between us. It is a reminder that he is valued and loved, even if we must spend time apart. This reassurance is crucial for his emotional development and helps establish a more harmonious home environment. A home where communication thrives over conflict.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. Associate Professor Hugh Leong is the Head of School, Design & Arts at Swinburne University of Technology, Sarawak Campus. He can be reached at hjleong@swinburne.edu.my