Teach children with positive reinforcement

All of us are continually learning from our environment, and adapting to it. Children also learn from their experiences – sometimes much more so than we realize.

Imagine this scenario:

It’s 6:30 p.m. and you’re headed home from work – finally – after a long and tiring day. Your spouse calls and informs you that there has been a flat tire, and asks you to pick up the kids from day care. You turn the car around, realizing that you have just lost the opportunity to 15 quiet, child-free minutes reading the paper upon your arrival home. You pick up the children, who immediately begin clamoring to stop for ice cream.  You object, asserting that dinner should come before dessert. Then the pleading starts: “Please?”  “We promise to eat all our dinner and do our homework.” “Just one quick stop.” “Just this once.” “We’ll be good all evening.” On and on it continues, and you think, “What could it hurt?” You decide to give in and have the ice cream, just to keep the peace.

It would be difficult to find someone among us who has not chosen the path of least resistance when faced with such seemingly innocuous requests. Certainly, the quickest, easiest option has a great deal of appeal.

But what message is being sent to the children? In this scenario, the children learned two important lessons, both of which are likely to be remembered. Lesson one: A parent’s “no” is simply an opening for negotiation. Keep in mind, children and adults alike are apt to repeat behaviors that are positively reinforced. When a specific behavior yields a desired result, that behavior becomes part of one’s repertoire. In this case, the reinforced behavior was refusing to take “no” for an answer. The parent said “no” to the ice cream, the children refused to accept the “no” answer, and eventually received the ice cream.

Lesson two:  Nagging will sometimes pay off in the end. Here, we see the principle of intermittent reinforcement in action. Think about slot machines: People that use them know that, at some point, their efforts of putting in money and pulling the lever will pay off. This knowledge of eventual payoff keeps the behavior going. In the above example, the nagging is the behavior, and the ice cream is the payoff. The children in question have learned, through experience, that nothing bad will happen if they argue; in fact, there is a fair chance that something good will happen as a result of the argument.

What must we do to impart different learning in our offspring? First of all, we must be vigilant in differentiating between desired and undesired behavior in children. Too often, parents observe desired behavior (such as playing quietly together, sharing a pizza without conflict, taking turns playing a game, etc.) and ignore it, fearing that any intervention on the adults’ part will somehow “break the spell” of the children’s good behavior. Instead, parents should look for opportunities to reinforce such behavior. This may be done by deciding what types of things your children like, and providing those reinforcements in response to behaviors you would like your children to repeat. You might say something like, “I appreciate that you played kindly together all afternoon, and as a reward, you may each have an extra 15 minutes of phone time tonight.” Remember that rewards don’t always have to be tangible; a simple statement of praise or appreciation is often enough.

Additionally, be sure to refrain from providing reinforcements for behavior you do not like, such as arguing, nagging, noncompliance, or refusal to accept “no” for an answer. In our original example, the parent would have been wiser to refuse the ice cream trip, on the grounds that the children did not respectfully accept the limits initially set by the parent. In this way, the children would learn that nagging gains them no advantage.

Remember: the principle of positive reinforcement informs us that, when a child demonstrates a behavior that we like, we should provide him with a result that he likes. Conversely, when he displays undesirable behavior, we should make sure he is not rewarded for it.

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Disclaimer: The contents of this article should not be interpreted as implying professional counsel or the establishment of a therapeutic relationship. If you or a family member require professional guidance, please contact a licensed mental health professional in your area. In south Florida, you may contact www.family-options.com. If you live elsewhere, please feel free to email me at tmallett@family-options.com, and I will help you find a therapist in your area.