In Psychology 101, students are introduced to the principals of Operant Conditioning: Positive and Negative Reinforcement, and Positive and Negative Punishment. As simple as these concepts sound, even the most enthusiastic Psych 101 students generally get these concepts screwed up. For whatever reason, they’re just hard for students to keep straight. That said, how are parents to understand these concepts and use them effectively? The answer is: they don’t. Parents don’t generally understand Operant Conditioning or use it effectively. Lots of them think they are using the techniques properly, but when the child’s behavior doesn’t change in the desired direction, that is proof to us that the parent is not using the techniques correctly.Seems that everyone thinks they generally understand punishment and how to apply it. Common punishments include spanking, yelling, lecturing, grounding, and extra chores. Although most of those will immediately reduce a problem behavior, most punishments carry extra baggage with them. That is, if you yell at a child to stop doing something, chances are, they are going to stop doing whatever it is, but they are also going to be a little afraid of you, a little angry at you, or a little disgusted with you for losing your temper. So, they might stop their behavior briefly, but they didn’t get an overly positive opinion of you in the process. Likewise with spanking. Lecturing is better than the other two, but generally leaves kids with the notion that you’re boring. If they listened long enough to hear what it was they are supposed to be doing instead of what you told them to stop, they may change their behavior somewhat. Grounding and extra chores are among the best of the punishments, for when you absolutely must use punishments, but even their effects are short lived and rarely actually teach the child what it is that you want them to do. They only teach what it is that you DON’T want the child to do.
Most parents overlook the most powerful mechanism of behavior change at their disposal: positive reinforcement. This is the act of giving a child something he wants after he has done something appropriate. This is giving a dollar for an “A” on a report card, a smile for having cleaned off the table, a kind word and a ruffle of the hair for including a younger brother in a game, or a pack of baseball cards at the checkout for helping you do the grocery shopping without complaining. Many parents say, “Hey! Why should I give him something for just doing what he is supposed to do?” The answer is: because you want him to do it again. Simple as that. Any behavior that is not reinforced, stops. Look at yourself if you doubt this. Think of anything you were doing that was never noticed, appreciated, or rewarded in any way. You stopped doing it, didn’t you? What if you went to work tomorrow and they said, “Glad to see ya, Bill, here’s your next project and by the way, we’re way over budget this week and can’t give you a paycheck, we hope you don’t mind.” You wouldn’t work for no pay and neither will your kids. You still think it’s crazy to “pay” your kids for the “work” you need them to do? Do they have a bicycle? A video game system? More than 3 pairs of pants? A baseball mitt? Music CD’s? If so, you’re already “paying” them. They don’t need any of that stuff. What did they do to earn it? If you say, “nothing,” then they’ve really got YOU trained. They get all kinds of stuff from you and they don’t even have to work for it?!? I tell parents that if they are already going to buy the children these extras, these luxury items, the parents should at least get their money’s worth out of them by using these items as positive reinforces for good behavior. After a child has done the dishes for a week without reminder, you may give him a new music CD. If a younger sibling hits the older one and the older one keeps his cool and does not hit back, you may take him out for a rewarding ice cream, and so on. Rewarding good behavior increases the likelihood that the good behavior will continue.