Circling back to our discussion on reinforcement and punishment (see Understanding Reinforcement vs. Punishment from 2/8/18), now that you have an understanding of the basics, it’s time to learn more about operant conditioning. As a… More
I simply cannot blog another week without covering reinforcement and punishment. These are terms you have probably heard before and you may have a thorough understanding of them or an inkling about what they mean, but they are critical to parenting so let’s spend some time refreshing your memory. The quick psychology history lesson is that these terms are part of B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning theory that developed in reaction to John B. Watson’s classical conditioning theory (think Pavlov’s dogs) and spawned the behaviorism movement in psychology. We’ll talk more about Pavlov and Watson another time. We now know that both forms of behaviorism are valid in different applications, and from the later cognitive psychology movement we know that thoughts and attitudes clearly cannot be ignored as influences on behavior. For today, let’s focus just on how parents can use reinforcement and punishment to improve their parent-child interactions. To understand these concepts, it is simplest to look at them in a grid:
|Reinforcement||Adding something good
|Removing something bad
Ex: Stopping a nagging song
|Punishment||Adding something bad
Ex: Cleaning house
|Removing something good
Ex: Taking away a toy
Reinforcement comes in two types, positive and negative. Positive reinforcement means adding a pleasant stimulus (adding something good) to increase the likelihood of a behavior. If your child says, “May I have the milk please,” you hand the milk and say, “Here you go Johnny, and I love how you used your good manners.” Johnny is happy to receive your praise and is more likely to say please in the future. Other examples of positive reinforcement are clapping when a child puts their shoes on by themselves, scheduling a play date when they show good behavior at home, or getting a lollipop at the end of the grocery trip if they sat nicely in the cart.
Negative reinforcement means removing an aversive stimulus (taking away something bad) to increase the likelihood of a behavior. A couple of my kids have gone through phases where they would get in the car and take forever to put on their seatbelts. After trying a few different approaches, I found the one that worked best for my munchkins is singing the seatbelt song, “The first thing you do when you get in the car is strap in, strap in” and simply saying that over and over again (with increasing volume if necessary) until they strap in. If you have a good singing voice, this technique may not work for you, but when I say those first few words of the song, they usually get to buckling up quite quickly now. More examples of negative reinforcement are a child putting away their shoes so mom stops nagging them, letting a child walk on the sidewalk without holding your hand when they agree to stay right next to you, or switching the radio station after a child adds “please” to their request.
Punishment also comes in two types, positive and negative. The term positive can be very confusing in this context but remember positive just means to add something (good or bad). Positive punishment means adding an aversive stimulus (adding something bad) but this time the stimulus is meant to decrease the likelihood of a behavior. For example, if my boys get too rough with each other, they are put to work cleaning the house. First they must “check-in” with the victim. In our house this means a sincere apology in a nice tone of voice and an inquiry as to how the guilty party may help to make it up to the victim (take a turn with a coveted toy, clean up the toys they were playing with, etc.). But if mom has to get involved because the roughness continues, they are off to wipe down the walls, doors, or table chairs. A little physical labor helps to get out that extra energy and deter further roughness. Other examples of positive punishment are speaking to your child in a firm tone, giving a disapproving look when you see your child behaving poorly, or having to say 10 nice things for every unkind thing they say to someone.
Finally, negative punishment means removing a pleasant stimulus (taking away something good) to help decrease the likelihood of a behavior. When one of my boys was 7 years old and regressed into biting siblings when he was angry, we tried a few approaches and ultimately had to step things up a notch by making the rule that if he bit someone, that person could choose any one of his Lego sets to play with for an entire week. This happened once and there were tears, complaints that the punishment was too harsh, and sadness when the Lego set was dismantled by a younger sibling, but we felt that this was a very serious behavior that needed to be stopped. It tugged on my heartstrings to see him so upset, but guess how many times he has bitten a sibling since then…zero! More examples of negative punishment are leaving a play date early for poor behavior, skipping dessert if you don’t eat your dinner, or removing toys if you don’t clean up after playing.
So there you go, four powerful tools in your parenting tool belt to help motivate your child’s behavior to be more in line with your expectations. Amazing parents use reinforcement throughout the day, every day. Punishment should be used infrequently after first attempting other options. Parenting can be very frustrating at times, and even the best parents sometimes loose their cool and yell at their children, but your goal should be to avoid that form of positive punishment. Physical punishment, such as spanking, should never be used. Now that you have a better understanding of these terms, take a look at how you interacted with your children today and see if you can fit examples from your own life into these four categories. If you’re heavy on the punishment side, make it your goal to focus on reinforcement tomorrow!
You know I love problem-solving and I think good sleep hygiene (your routines and sleep environment that help you sleep soundly) is of the utmost importance (see Bedtime Routines from 2/14/17), and safety is of course a priority for all loving parents. So I must share with you the solution to two problems we used to have in our house that were easily solved with an inexpensive purchase. First, little kids love playing with doors and my body tenses every time I hear a door slammed during a game of chase for fear that one of the 40 little fingers in our house may have been crunched. Second, big kids who are out of diapers sometimes need to get up to use the bathroom at night. When they’re first getting into this routine, they may need your assistance but over time this becomes something you do not need to help with, nor do you need to have your sleep interrupted by this activity. You can coach your kids on gently closing doors or even just leaving them open at night but despite coaching, groggy munchkins used to sometimes wake us up with the clang of doors in the middle of the night. If you have ever dealt with these issues, I suggest you look for some foam door stoppers. They’re shaped like a U and sit upside down on the top of the door or on the side if you want the kids to be able to reach them. Ours have cute animal heads on them and come in fun colors. They’re practically silent if someone slams the door so I don’t have to worry about fingers and get a better night sleep!
Next Monday at 11:30am Central Standard Time, I am honored to be a guest on a radio talk show called Community Matters on KZUM 89.3FM based out of Lincoln, NE. You can listen live at https://kzum.org/communitymatters/ if you’re so inclined. In preparation, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the focus of this blog, how I envision it moving forward, and what I hope its impact to be over time. Having done a fair amount of public speaking during my training as a psychologist, I’ve learned it is helpful to anticipate specific questions that might be asked during an interview to help me feel more prepared and confident during the actual event. One thing that came to mind when prepping for this upcoming interview is a list of quick parenting tips grounded in my psychology-based parenting style and simple enough that I could quickly list them out without providing the whole psychology lesson behind each one. Can’t you just envision the host closing the interview with a question like, “Ok, Dr. Emmerson, if you had to give us just a few quick tips that our listeners could use with their own kids, what would they be?” If you recall Mr. Handy (see Mr. Handy to the Rescue! from 3/23/17), you know that I like using sets of 5 in my parenting. Here’s what I came up with, the 5 C’s:
1) Communicate with your child in a loving, teaching manner (supportive, calm, informative)
2) (Be) Consistent in all areas of your parenting (your family’s daily routines, your interaction style with your children, the outcomes your children can expect from specific behaviors)
3) (Provide) Choices to help guide your children toward developing independence
4) (Teach) Consequences early to help children learn to make good choices and to help you maintain a sense of control using if-then statements where the child clearly understands the consequence before making his behavior choice
5) Catch yourself when you are getting frustrated or encountering a parenting roadblock and use your problem-solving skills and parenting tricks (distraction, humor, break tension with a smile, alone time for yourself)
I’ll delve into each of these topics more in future posts but for today, just take a second to think about whether these items describe your parenting style. If so, great. If not, pick one that you might work on this week and see if things go more smoothly at home for you and your munchkins. Good luck!
People sometimes ask if I use my training as a clinical psychologist (who diagnoses and treats mental disorders) on my children and thankfully there’s no need for that but many of the treatment tools I used to use with patients are applicable in parenting normally developing children. There are a number of different styles of psychological therapy but the most widely used evidence-based approach is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT focuses on identifying and modifying unhelpful patterns in cognitions (your thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes) and behaviors (your actions). In previous posts I’ve introduced the topic of problem-solving using the acronym SOLVE (see Solve Your Parenting Problems in 5 Steps from 3/8/17) which is one tool in the cognitive-behavioral therapist’s toolbox. Some problems are more complex and really require you to work through each of the steps. But sometimes you may notice a parenting problem and just have that “ah ha” moment, especially if you get in the habit of thinking like a cognitive behavioral therapist.
If you stuck with me through the nutritional lesson in my last post, here’s a quick tip related to snacks that stems from one of those “ah ha” problem-solving moments. I was recently carpooling with an excellent mom, very knowledgeable and loving. We had our 9 year-olds on an outing during a time when they would normally be having snack at school and it was clear they were “bonking” (our family’s term for unexpected dips in behavior due to low blood sugar levels). No problem; I just reached for a box I keep in the car with different snack options: nuts, apple sauce pouches, granola bars, and fig bars. The box lives in my car and is restocked as needed. Everything has a long shelf life and is relatively mess-free, though occasionally some apple sauce goes flying. So if anybody is ever staving while we’re in the car or I forget to pack a snack for our trip to the park, we’re covered. You can probably imagine me driving in my early parenting years with just one child on a day when he was horribly upset during the car ride home from a park because I didn’t have any snacks left. Amidst the hysterical crying, I thought here’s a parenting problem and I need to solve it to help my child and keep my sanity while driving. I started running through the problem-solving steps in my head when an “ah ha” moment struck me and I thought, there’s no reason for me to ever be without a snack for a hungry child; I’ll just keep them in the car. I’ve been doing this for years and when this mom commented on what a great idea it was, I though wow, if this super mom doesn’t know this trick, I’d best post it on my blog for others who might benefit from the tip. Maybe you can benefit from the car snack box or maybe you have other daily parenting struggles that might benefit from thinking like a behavioral psychologist and searching for your “ah ha” moment.
I am thrilled to be back at the keyboard after focusing on four kids for the summer, playing the role of contractor on our home for a few months, and surviving some rather chaotic interactions with Mother Nature in our dear little town. I have been strategizing future posts and am so excited to get back to this concept of integrating principles from psychology into parenting to help you and your children have more fulfilling interactions on a daily basis. Today’s topic is snacks. If it doesn’t sound like there is a psychological principle in there, read on.
First of all, just a quick reminder that kids are rapidly growing, super fast metabolizing creatures that need to be fed often. Young children need three meals a day and at least two snacks (somewhere around 9am and 3pm depending on their nap schedule and what time your family eats their meals). You probably know that meals should include a protein, fruit and/or vegetable, grain, and dairy. Snacks should also be well-rounded. A friend once talked about how her son’s mood tended to dip in the afternoon. As we started chatting about snacks, it turned out she was not regularly providing a protein at snack time because that seemed like something you save for mealtime. For adults, that might be fine – just have an apple in the afternoon to tide you over until dinner. Young kids, however, need that protein boost in the morning and afternoon. Peanut butter, eggs, cheese, etc. can help your little one stay happy and healthy. It does take time each day to put together five protein-packed dining experiences for your kids but trust me, the improvement in mood, both your child’s and yours in turn, is worth it.
Ok, now where’s the psychology? This is a brief, tangible introduction to the field of developmental psychology, the study of how and why humans change over the course of their lives. Many future posts will touch on topics from developmental psychology, such as understanding developmental stages of growth to help parents have realistic expectations for their children. Here I just wanted to introduce the overarching concept that children are not just little adults. Children have different thinking styles, behavioral patterns, nutritional needs, emotional experiences, concepts of time, etc. Our goal as parents is to help them mature so that one day all of these facets of human life are more consistent with ours as adults, but this happens in baby steps, so to speak. From the time they start eating solids until sometime later in elementary school, they’ll need those extra snacks!
I haven’t written in a little while and some of my awesomely supportive friends have been asking when they can expect more posts. I have a huge list of topics for future posts and am super excited to get them on paper (or rather, computer screen) but I’m falling a little short on free time as our family embarks on two much-anticipated construction projects. Alas, I cannot guarantee when my next post will be but I definitely plan on more, especially when school starts up again next fall.
In the meantime, I have a quick story for you related to this concept of managing your time and preserving as much of it for your little kiddos as possible. A friend recently asked me how I can manage to look at Facebook so rarely and I responded that every minute I am on Facebook is a minute that I’m ignoring 1 to 4 children (depending on how many of the older 3 are at school at that time). This friend has brought this quote up several times and shared it with other moms as a moment of insight where she realized how important it is to consciously balance her own daily routine with her desire to be present for her children. Children certainly do not need to be, and should not be, attended to every minute or responded to immediately every time they request your attention or assistance. But if I am asking a child to wait a minute for my response, I want there to be a good reason like I’m speaking on the phone with your aunt or I’m changing the baby’s diaper – not I’m getting caught up on Facebook. My friends will forgive me for not having seen every picture they posted on Instagram this week but my children will remember how much attention I paid to them and their daily accomplishments forever.
The key to interacting with preschoolers is keeping things light and fun. I credit my munchkins’ preschool teacher with bestowing on us the powerful tool of Mr. Handy: Make a fist with your hand with the knuckle forward and use your thumb to control the mouth or keep your fingers spread and wiggle them like hair – either way your kids will get a kick out of Mr. Handy. The beauty is that he can act as your special helper somewhere your kids need a bit more encouragement.
A few years back, I found that getting the kids ready in the morning had become a frustrating experience; I was calling people into the bathroom with poor response time, they weren’t excited about brushing their teeth, etc. Mr. Handy to the rescue! The kids and I got together and decided there were 5 things we really needed to accomplish every morning: get dressed, make our beds, brush hair, brush teeth, and put on sunscreen. Five is the magic number so you have one finger for each activity; if your list has more than 5 items, you can merge tasks like brush hair & teeth. The great thing about having Mr. Handy help out is that he does all the talking. You can give him a fun voice and ask the kids, “Have you brushed your teeth yet?” and instead of Mom nagging them, it becomes fun! I also love that you can count out the 5 To Do list items (starting with a closed fist and raising one finger at a time) to wrap-up the session and close with a high-5.
Try out Mr. Handy wherever you’re finding challenges in your daily routine: With good table manners, with homework, with remembering things to bring out the door on the way to school, etc. P.S. – The other thing that we’ve found very helpful in the morning is to keep sunscreen and an extra toothbrush for each kid in the kitchen so we can keep the momentum going after breakfast and finish getting ready in the kitchen rather than dragging everyone back to the bathroom.
Have you ever had a bad parenting day? Scratch that: If you’re a parent, you’ve had a bad parenting day. Whether it’s troublesome behavior from your kids, chaotic scheduling, conflicts with your own personal To Do list, illness, or what have you, some days are just rough. Having a good support system in place from early in your parenting career is so important to maintaining a happy family.
Being a first time parent often means a huge change in your peer group. Surely you’ll maintain friendships from before parenthood but at every stage of your baby’s life you’ll have the opportunity to meet a whole new group of people, from your prenatal classes to play groups to preschool to elementary and so forth. You might find peers in your new exercise group, at your church, or even form a closer, reflective connection with those who raised you.
From the beginning, identify the one or two people who a) you completely admire their personality and their parenting style and b) you feel totally comfortable confiding in. Keep that number handy for those bad parenting days. We all need support from time to time. A simple phone call or text with one of these people can turn a rough day into an motivational experience and recharge you for whatever parenthood throws at you next.
How do you discipline your children? Certainly infants and very young children don’t need any discipline. Rather, the focus at these ages is on modeling good behavior and steering children away from danger. As your child approaches age 2, he starts to have more of a sense of independence and starts trying out new behaviors, some of which you may not want to continue. This is when the concept of behavioral consequences should be introduced: Each behavior you choose has a consequence.
My favorite strategy for disciplining young children involves providing choices. Your child’s verbal comprehension skills are well-developed already, so even if they do not yet have a lot of verbal expression (saying words), they can understand what you say and the choices you provide very well. Giving your child a choice helps them to feel empowered rather than feeling like their parents are dictators. Something as simple as, “Would you like to read this book or that book before your nap today?” helps your child develop their independence and gets them used to the concept of making choices.
Using choices as a discipline technique comes into play when your child says they do not want to do something that you expect them to do. For example, when you let them know it’s time to head upstairs for their nap and they in turn, let you know they don’t want to take a nap today. First, I would provide an explanation for why you are asking them to do the given behavior, in this case napping, such as, “Your body needs rest so you will have enough energy for our fun afternoon outing. Let’s head up to nap now.” Assuming your child seems ready for his nap and this resistance can be attributed to “testing the limits” of his independence, I would then provide the clear choice, “You can walk up the stairs to nap or mommy can carry you.” You’re still speaking to your child in a kind way but you are clearly communicating that you are in control and the nap will happen, while giving him a choice to make a good decision and walk up on his own.” I would then start counting, “3, 2, 1” and if they have not started walking up the stairs by 1, I would pick them up and give then a snuggle or fly them like a plane to keep the mood lighthearted before nap.
Some people count up to 10 but I think 3 counts is plenty of time for them to make a decision. Some people count up from 1 to 3 but I think it’s clearer to kids that something will happen after 1. They know there’s a number 4 after the number 3 but they’re not yet aware of negative numbers (and often not even aware of 0) so to them 1 indicates the end of the line. And here’s my favorite part about counting down from 3: When your child gets the hang of it and knows you’re serious about the alternative choice (being carried up to nap in this example), they’ll get those feet moving, usually after a teeny bit of dilly dallying, so you end up saying, “3, 2, thank you!” (never having to say 1) which rhymes so nicely and keeps the mood positive.
If you’re going to use this strategy, remember that it must be used consistently. That doesn’t mean use it universally every time your child is doing something you don’t like. Rather, use it only for behaviors for which there is a clear next step that must be followed: “Please climb in the car or mommy can help you in,” “Please hop out of bath or mommy can help you out,” “Please give that back to your sister or mommy can help you give it to her.” Using this approach consistently means when they have refused to do something you have asked them to do, you provide a choice, start counting down from 3, and if your child does not choose the favorable option, you consistently follow-up with the consequence. There’s no further discussion. Set a clear consequence, make sure they hear the consequence, start counting, and hopefully you’ll be saying “3, 2, Thank you!”
As you can see, in the early years this is a physical approach (in a very gentle way; please do not confuse this with physical punishment) in that you’re helping your child move their body. When used consistently, kids learn to make the good choice provided by you (because they know if you start counting, you’re serious about making the request happen). Over time, your child will learn to make good choices on his own and to respect your words so this becomes a simple, verbal approach to discipline (start early with your 1-2 year-old so you won’t be carrying your heavy 4 year-old around every time they refuse to follow your requests). Using techniques like this, by the time your munchkin starts kindergarten (that first milestone that I’m always working towards in my parenting) they’ll be cooperative and helpful both at home and in the classroom.
I’ve alluded to problem solving skills a few times in my earlier posts and today is the day we will talk about the steps you can take to actually solve your parenting problems. A parenting problem can be anything from your child engaging in an undesirable behavior like hitting to you feeling dissatisfied with your own daily parenting routine. These are basic steps that I used to teach my patients in therapy sessions. My kindergartener even came home from school with a print-out of these steps. I’m not comparing you to a psychotic person or a kindergartener, but in your frustrating parenting moments, perhaps you have felt a bit like that? Have you ever caught yourself in a frustrating parenting moment saying something like, “Well, then you’re not going to get (insert child’s favorite treat or activity) today” without stopping to think about whether that was the best approach to solving the problem? We all let our emotions get the best of us at times. Having young children can be stressful and when we’re stressed we tend to overlook the problem solving process, but really taking the time to look more methodically and objectively at a situation can make it much easier to manage. If you think about how you solve problems in your life when you’re in a more rational mindset, you will probably come up with these steps but most of us haven’t taken the time to step back and examine how we tackle life’s challenges.
We’ve been focussing on sleep lately, so I’m going to teach you the steps using an example of a bedtime problem I encountered with my daughter when she was about 3 1/2 years old. Any number of acronyms can be used to help you remember the steps: STEP, SCALE, etc. I’ll use SOLVE:
S: State the problem. Without adding a lot of emotion to it, define the problem.
In my example, my daughter shared a room with her older brother and they had the same bedtime. For at least half a year this had been a perfect set-up and they each fell asleep within minutes of tuck-in time. Then she periodically started having trouble falling asleep and would talk, sing, etc. at bedtime. There was no obvious pattern for her clearly not being ready for bed at her usual bedtime but it would happen a couple of times a week. The more this went on, the more disruptive she would get, talking louder, preventing her brother from going to sleep, coming out of her room, etc. We went from blissful bedtimes to quite a raucous and unpredictable routine. S: My daughter does not fall asleep at her usual bedtime.
O: Options. Think of every possible way you could solve this problem, even the ones that seem ridiculous; openly brainstorming just might lead to other great ideas or at least add a bit of humor to help deter any frustration you’re feeling.
- Change her bedtime
- Change her brother’s bedtime
- Have them sleep in different rooms
- Have mom or dad stay outside the room to intervene quickly when disruption occurs
- Have mom or dad stay in the room until she falls asleep
- Provide a reward for going to bed on time
L: List the pros and cons of each possible option for solving the problem.
- She might be more ready for bed at a later time but she might be overly tired if she still wakes up at the same time; also older brother would not like it if she got to stay up later; also her sleep duration seemed appropriate for her age
- Brother could be kept up later allowing sister to fall asleep with less distraction but he tends to wake up at the same time every day so that would leave him sleep-deprived; also that would eat into adult time in the evenings
- Baby brother was already in the picture by this point so we could move sister into her own room but then big brother might be woken up in the night by baby brother; also sister loved sharing a room with big brother and wasn’t ready to move to her own room yet
- Supervising from the hallway might help if she’s just testing boundaries and isn’t too inconvenient for mom/dad but isn’t a long-term solution
- Staying in the bedroom should help stop disruptive behavior but is a bigger adjustment to our normal routine where the kids fall asleep on their own after tuck-in and mom/dad leave the room
- She would likely respond to a reward but I tend not to like rewarding a behavior that had been mastered; rather, I tend to reward new behaviors the children are working on mastering then phase out the reward once the behavior is established.
V: (Choose the) Very best one. Pick the option you think will work best for you and your child.
We chose what seemed like the simplest solution but one that might actually work and I started lingering in the hallway outside their door after tuck-in (option 4) so that I could pop my head in as soon as I heard her talking or climbing out of bed and remind her that it was bedtime and their bodies needed enough rest to be ready for a fun day tomorrow.
E: Evaluate the outcome. Have you seen the type of progress you were hoping for? If not, return to the previous step and try a different option, then evaluate the outcome.
Option 4 was clearly not the right approach for her. Many nights she would go right to sleep or need 1 reminder but others she would be relentlessly energetic and clearly not ready for bed. So we tried option 6. Then option 5. Then option 1; even with a later bedtime, she still had restless bedtimes on some nights. Then option 2; we would put her to sleep first and that seemed to help a little, but she still had those nights where she would be up for a long time past bedtime so then her brother was kept up too late. Then option 3; we would put him to sleep in our bed and move him into his after she fell asleep. Trying out all of these options took a couple of months and by that time we were very ready for our easy bedtimes to return but out of options. So, we went all the way back to the second problem-solving step: Options and came up with a new list of options to try. This time I consulted with trusted mom friends and gained some great insight about how since having younger brother, our bedtime routine had changed a bit so we normalized that as much as we could. But still, she had these occasional nights of wakefulness, until it hit me one day as we were driving around in the afternoon and she fell asleep, that perhaps the little catnaps she snuck in once or twice a week could be disrupting her nighttime sleep. She had stopped napping regularly but if we happened to be out later in the afternoon, she would still fall asleep in the car. The wakeful nights weren’t always on these nap days, but I thought perhaps the accumulated sleep from those naps was affecting her sleep schedule. I started actively keeping her from falling asleep in the car and just like magic our easy bedtimes were back in action. Although cutting out these car naps was the most helpful thing, we had noticed the benefit of staggered bedtimes; plus, by cutting out these occasional car naps she was more tired than usual at bedtime and benefitted from an earlier bedtime than her brother. And that was the beginning of our 15-minute staggered bedtime between children.
This was a particularly difficult problem to solve which required several passes through the SOLVE steps, some good brainstorming sessions with other moms, and continued brainstorming that lead to the “Ah ha!” moment where I realized the car naps might be the culprit and added cutting out car naps to the “Options” list. If you use the steps to guide you and have perseverance, even the toughest parenting problems can be solved.
These steps are great to teach your kids too! They encounter problems daily, especially in their interactions with friends and siblings. Teach your kids these steps to help them solve their own problems. Instead of running to break-up every fight between the kids at our house, I’ll often holler, “Be a problem solver!” to help inspire them to work through their own problems using the same techniques I do.