According to social learning theory, most of your children's behavior is learned through the environment. Children learn primarily in two ways. One is through modeling the behavior of another person, in this case watching and imitating parents. The other is through positive reinforcement, which means rewarding appropriate behavior. Parents need to be models of behaviors that they would like to see their children acquire, and identify behaviors that they are trying to increase in their child, so that they can be reinforced. Remember, most behaviors you are trying to eliminate can be restated as a behavior you would like to increase. For example, less fighting means more playing nicely, less trouble at bedtime means going to bed on time, etc.
According to Tom Prinz in "Dragon Slaying for Parents", there are three different types of reinforcements or rewards: tangible, intangible and intrinsic. Parents need to progress through the first two, in order to help the child reach the most effective and mature reward system, intrinsic reinforcement. This is an internalized reward, or the reward of doing or completing the behavior in itself!
Tangible rewards are things that can be played with, held, experienced, eaten, etc. Parents need to make sure that the reward is meaningful to that particular child. For instance, for a very large goal, a trip to Disneyland may mean more than receiving money. Lee Canter in "Assertive Discipline" gives an effective technique for using tangible rewards called Marbles in the Jar. Parents catch their child being good, verbally praise them (social reward) for what they are doing, and then put a few marbles in a jar for additional reinforcement. The child is told that when the jar is full, they will be able to participate in a fun, family activity, like a movie, camping trip or visit to Magic Mountain). It's important to get the child's input for the reward, use one jar for all children in the family, and have the jar always visible to the children. It also serves as a helpful reminder to the parents to look for the positive behavior.
Social rewards are intangible reinforcements that come directly to the child from other people in their lives. This includes praise (saying lots of nice things to your child about the behavior), facial expressions (smiling and eye contact), physical nearness (moving closer to your child), and physical contact (affection). It's important to always add this type of reward to any tangible reward (a new toy with a smile and a "good job on your spelling test"). If you strive to use all of the above when you praise, your praise will be much more effective. Eventually the intangible social reward is reinforcement enough.
Your child's ability to work for intrinsic reinforcement will be your final reward! Intrinsic reinforcement is when the child's reward is actually performing or completing the task. This is when children and teens become rewarded by feelings of mastery, pride in achievement, curiosity, etc. If parents properly use tangible rewards paired with social rewards, then gradually fade out the tangible rewards, children will become more intrinsically motivated, which will prove very helpful when they fly away from the nest! But don't forget, children and adults will always need some tangible and social rewards to keep up the good work (thank you, pat on the back, a pay check).
The most important element of rewarding your child is catching your child's good behavior. It's sad but true, misbehavior attracts more attention. So, parents, pay close attention to those quieter moments!