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December 07, 2015

Accidental Reinforcement

Parents often reinforce undesirable behavior and weaken behavior they value.

It is remarkably easy to reward undesirable behavior in children by allowing it to succeed. Suppose, for example, that Mr. and Mrs. Weakknee are having dinner guests, and they put three-year-old Ricky to bed at seven o'clock. They know Ricky will cry, as he always does, but what else can they do? Indeed, Ricky cries. He begins at a low pitch and gradually builds to the decibel level of a jet at takeoff. 

Finally, Mrs. Weakknee becomes so embarrassed by the display that she lets Ricky get up. What has the child learned? That he must cry loudly if he doesn't want to go to bed. Quiet protests don't work. Mr. and Mrs. Weakknee had better be prepared for a tearful battle the following night, too, because the response eventually succeeded. And if they forget, Ricky will undoubtedly remind them. 

To explain this principle further, let's consider another scenario. An argumentative teenager, Laura Beth, never takes "no" for an answer. She is so cantankerous that she's only homesick when she's home. Whenever her mother is unsure whether she should allow Laura Beth to go out at night, she first tells her she can't go. By saying "no" initially, Laura Beth's mom buys some extra time to think the request over. She can always change her mind, but she knows it's easier to go from "no" to "yes" than the other way. However, what all of this tells Laura Beth is that "no" really means "maybe"...and that "yes" is possible if she argues and complains enough. 

Many parents make the same mistake as Laura Beth's mother. They allow arguing, sulking, pouting, door slamming and bargaining to succeed. Parents should not take a definitive position on an issue until they have thought it over thoroughly and listened to the child's argument. Then they should stick tenaciously to their decision. If the teenager learns that "no" means "absolutely not," she is less likely to waste her effort appealing her case.

Or suppose it is Mr. and Mrs. Smith's tenth wedding anniversary and they are going out for dinner. As they prepare to leave, their five- and six-year-old children begin howling about being left behind. Mr. Smith is vaguely familiar with the principles of reinforcement, so he offers a pack of gum to the children if they'll stop crying. Unfortunately, Mr. Smith has not reinforced the silence; he has rewarded the tears. The next time he and Mrs. Smith leave it will be to the children's advantage to cry again. A small alternative would have changed the setting entirely. Mr. Smith should have offered the gum for their cooperation before the tears began to fall. 

Let's apply the principle to babies and their tears. Crying is an important form of communication for infants. Through their wails we learn of their hunger, fatigue, discomfort, or diaper disaster. Although we don't want to eliminate crying in babies, it is possible to make them less fussy by minimizing the reinforcement of their tears. If an infant is immediately picked up or rocked each time he cries, he may quickly observe the relationship between tears and adults' attention. How well I remember standing at the doorway of my infant daughter's nursery for several minutes, awaiting a momentary lull in the crying before going to her crib. By doing so, I reinforced the pauses rather than the howls. 

Obviously, parents must be careful about the behaviors they allow to succeed. They must exercise self-discipline and patience to ensure that the tools of reinforcement and extinction are being used to encourage responsible and mature behavior.

From the book The New Dare To Discipline.

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