Today’s guest blog is written by our son Josh. While home on a recent visit from college, I asked for his perspective on parenting, from the other side of the parenting equation, the child. Josh is currently finishing his degrees at Washington State University, WSU, with graduation fast approaching in May 2018. He will be graduating with dual degrees in Neuroscience and Psychology, the hardware and software of the brain. He plans to pursue his Ph.D in Neuroscience while focusing on research into the way that childhood experience influences psychopathology, mental illness. The biological basis of mental illness.
Basis of Behavior
I’m not going to pretend that I know what it’s like to be a parent. I’m 22 years old and spend most of my free time in my room playing video games, otherwise I’m in class, doing research in the lab and poring over neuropsychology texts. While I don’t exactly have the practical experience necessary to be able to give perfect advice, that second bit has at least given me some unique perspectives that might be useful to you – a parent or prospective parent, assuming you’re reading this blog. Many people underestimate how pervasive the concepts of psychology are, and how easily they can be applied to everyday life. I’d hesitate to characterize us like robots, but behavior is at least a lot more predictable than most people think.
But what happens when unexpected behavior comes up, especially if it’s something you’d like to get rid of? What if you want to make sure your child not only avoids bad behavior, but pursues good behavior? If you took a psychology course at some point in your life, you may have heard of B. F. Skinner and his experiments in operant conditioning. If not, don’t worry – you don’t need to be familiar in order to understand how valuable the concepts of operant conditioning can be in shaping behavior. While Skinner’s experiments were done on animals, these principles have been shown to apply to people as well, which provides a valuable tool that many of you have almost certainly already made some use of. I’m here to put in whatever pieces of the puzzle might be missing, and to hopefully help you effectively manage your child’s behavior by helping you fully understand the concepts of operant conditioning. Trust me, it might seem obvious at first, but it’ll be worth your time.
Operant conditioning is, at its core, a method of behavior modification. Behaviors are influenced by reward or punishment, with reward strengthening and punishment weakening a given behavior. Like I said, you’ve probably done this before without knowing – if you’ve ever grounded your child, or given them an allowance for doing chores, you’ve been doing operant conditioning. The most important thing to understand about operant conditioning, however, isn’t just how it works, but how effective it can be if applied correctly. But before I can get to the proper application, I have to explain the four types of operant conditioning.
There are two dimensions of operant conditioning – reinforcement/punishment, and positive/negative. As said before, reinforcement consists of any action that increases the odds that the behavior will happen again in the future. Punishment is the opposite, reducing the likelihood of that behavior happening again. This is the simpler side of operant conditioning, as it deals with the consequences. The second half, positive/negative, is a little more complicated. Positive and negative do not mean good and bad. In the context of operant conditioning, positive means that something is added, and negative means something is taken away. This makes four types of operant conditioning – positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment. However, that’s probably not too clear right away, so I’ll give some examples, starting from the top.
Positive vs. Negative Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement is when something is added in order to increase the likelihood of a behavior. This is a relatively common one – giving someone a reward for good behavior is as easy to understand as giving a dog a treat for performing a trick. Some examples of positive reinforcement would be:
- Giving your child an allowance for doing chores
- Taking your child out for ice cream because they aced an exam
- Verbally praising your child for cleaning their room without being told
Negative reinforcement is probably the weirdest of the bunch. Negative reinforcement is when something is taken away in order to increase the likelihood of a behavior – specifically, something undesirable is taken away. This, of course, relies on an undesirable stimulus being present in the first place, which you might have to put in place yourself. As such, it usually requires some level of prior planning. Some examples of negative reinforcement would be:
- Reducing playtime restrictions on video games because your child gets good grades
- Extending your child’s curfew after they show enough personal responsibility
- Stopping your nagging when your child finally cleans their room
Positive Punishment vs. Negative Punishment
Positive punishment sounds strange at first. How can punishment be positive? But remember, positive doesn’t mean good – it means something is added. Positive punishment is when something unpleasant is added in order to decrease the likelihood of a behavior. It’s also the most commonly used tactic by abusive parents. Some examples of positive punishment would be:
- Spanking your child for misbehaving (please don’t do this)
- Lecturing your child about why their behavior is wrong
- Having your child apologize to whoever they’ve wronged
Negative punishment is a little more straightforward in concept – it’s when you remove something in order to decrease the likelihood of a behavior. This one’s particularly common, especially among parents who want a tangible, material way to punish their child but don’t want to resort to corporal punishment. Some examples of negative punishment would be:
- Installing parental controls to limit computer time because of bad grades
- Grounding your child
- Preventing your child from going out with friends because they didn’t finish chores
How it Works.. Punishment vs. Reinforcement
Now that I’ve explained the general idea of operant conditioning, let’s look at some examples of what does and doesn’t work, starting with what doesn’t. One example that me and many other people I know can attest to is the sarcastic comments approach. If your child is like me and spends a lot of time in their room, you may have responded to them leaving their room with something along the lines of “Look who’s finally come out of their cave!” This doesn’t work.
Why? Let’s take a moment to dissect this to find out what kind of operant conditioning this is. So something is being added – the snarky comment. This makes it a positive form of conditioning. However, the thing being added is unpleasant, which means this is a form of punishment. Positive punishment. Why doesn’t this work? If you’re making these comments to demean your child for not leaving their room with the intent of making them come out more, what you’re doing is responding to the behavior by introducing something undesirable. Because this is a form of punishment, what you’re doing actually decreases the likelihood that your child will engage in this behavior again. You’re responding to a desirable behavior with an undesirable stimulus – and that’s why your kid keeps doing the exact opposite of what you want and staying in their room all day. How do you turn it around? When they come out of their rooms, engage with them. Find something to do that you can do together. Use this as an opportunity to do things not as an opportunity to criticize.
Since I’ve explained what doesn’t work, I probably owe it to you to explain what does work. The short answer? Reinforcement. The long answer? Positive reinforcement. If anecdotal evidence from all my friends is to be trusted, positive reinforcement is sorely underused by parents attempting to change their children’s behavior – yet research has consistently demonstrated that positive reinforcement is the most effective method of behavior modification.
Why? Our natural drive to pursue desirable things is stronger than our natural drive to avoid undesirable things. Why do you think college students subject themselves to rigorous coursework and sleepless nights in order to get their degrees? The degree, a desirable thing, is worth more than avoiding all the undesirable stuff that is needed in order to get it. Another tangible example of this phenomenon is the obesity epidemic. For many people, the deliciousness of certain foods reinforces their desire to eat them. This desire is stronger than the negative reinforcement alternative – the removal of health problems through exercise.
The advantage of reinforcement in general is that it’s proactive, rather than reactive. Punishment requires you to react in an undesirable way to an undesirable behavior, but reinforcement has you react in a desirable way to a desirable behavior. As such, punishment can only serve to modify behavior so long as your child is behaving badly. It relies on the existence of bad behavior in order to further development. In the case of reinforcement, it relies on good behavior – more importantly, it can allow your child to develop without you having to wait for your child to behave badly. And, as a consequence, you’ll likely be decreasing bad behavior if you increase good behavior, accomplishing the same goal while making both parties happier.
Now, this is unrelated to conditioning, but one little aside I wanted to make is about the concept of reactance. This is an important thing to keep in mind with all children, but especially teenagers, who have the desire and capability to rebel against you if they so choose. Reactance essentially says that people will react negatively to restrictions of their personal freedom. There are plenty examples of this in the news and in everyday life, but in the context of child-rearing, it may help to try and give your child a feeling of autonomy.
One example of reactance that I can attest to is studying. When I made the decision to study, I was motivated to do so and fully intended to, but as soon as my parents told me to study, I instantly stopped wanting to do it. Why? Because my autonomy had been restricted. It was no longer my decision, but a decision somebody else had made for me. Looking at it from an outside perspective, it seems stupid – and it is – but that’s because reactance is a powerful thing. This also has some relevance in the context of operant conditioning!
Reinforcement – rather than punishment – doesn’t intrude on someone’s autonomy. Instead, it rewards using one’s autonomy to do something good or productive, even if the incentive is offered beforehand. Convenient, right?
Hopefully this will be of some help. As I said, you’ve almost certainly engaged in some form of operant conditioning without knowing it had a name – but knowing the mechanisms behind it and the effectiveness vs. ineffectiveness of certain approaches will hopefully allow you to more effectively raise your child the way you want. Kids are tough to work with, but knowing these basic psychological principles could make the difference when it comes to shaping behavior.
This is Kathy back at ya. It is amazing when you turn around as a parent and recognize how smart and amazing your children have become. We don’t always, or even try to, sit down and have a meaningful conversation with our kids, especially during those teen-angst years. Catch those times when it isn’t chaos going on and just talk. Listen, really listen to what they are telling you. Recognizing and admitting to your child that you aren’t perfect, that there isn’t a book written on how to deal with each child out there, that you are doing your best to be the parent for your child in this moment, at this stage, will open up an incredible dialog. Because, in the end the most important thing is for them to know they are loved, on the good days and on the bad. Love them. They will surprise you.