At the end of a grocery trip on this rainy morning, I juggled an umbrella and a shopping cart while helping my nearly 3 year-old into the car but did not strap him in because lately he has been interested in doing that part himself. Once the groceries were secured and I had hopped in the car, I checked and saw that he was not yet strapped in so I politely asked him to do so. Apparently today he had lost interest in being independent with a seatbelt. Thinking this through quickly, I decided that I didn’t want to get back out in the rain to help him when he could certainly do that for himself so some problem-solving was needed, and I remembered he is still a wee lad and might need some extra motivation. Fortunately, I had in my hand the open mint case that he had been eating from in the store, so a perfect operant conditioning moment had presented itself.
Positive reinforcement to the rescue! I said to my son, “Oh look, I have your mints and you can have them for the car ride home as soon as you’re strapped in.” This was greeted with a “hmph,” crossed arms, and a frown, so I could see this was going to be a bit of a struggle. I certainly did not want to cave in at this point and teach him that he does not have to strap in when I ask or that he can have mints without strapping in. As you know, consistency is supremely important in parenting and he needs to learn that his behavior has consequences. But at the same time, he is so little and cute, and I did not want to have to strap him in and then hear him crying on the way home about not getting the mints. This is where it becomes important to insert “fun” into your parenting. You can efficiently use operant conditioning while staying happy and keeping your child happy. In this example, I turned our little stand-off into a fun exchange by giving him a wry smile and starting to shake the mints case like a musical instrument while singing a little song, “Strap in to get your mints.” Success! Seatbelt on, mints go to the adorable boy who learned to follow instructions and be independent, and we all drive home happily. There was definitely that moment of suspense when I worried that things would not go so smoothly, but I always try to keep my cool in those little stressful parenting moments, and they usually turn out great, especially if I remember to keep things fun. Being a kid should be fun and being a parent should also, so try to enjoy your parenting this week while still using your helpful parenting tools!