Using Operant Conditioning to Train Your Children to Have Good Manners

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 reminder, below is the chart showing the 2 forms of reinforcement, positive and negative, as well as the 2 forms of punishment, positive and negative. Remember that positive means adding something while negative means removing something, as opposed to positive meaning good and negative meaning bad. If I were B.F. Skinner, I would have chosen less confusing terms.

  Positive Negative
Reinforcement Adding something good

Ex: Praise

Removing something bad

Ex: Stropping a nagging song

Punishment Adding something bad

Ex: Cleaning house

Removing something good

Ex: Taking away a toy

Skinner’s original works used pigeons and rats to demonstrate his learning theory. Though your munchkins are infinitely brighter than pigeons and I would never compare them to rats, the same concepts apply. Sometimes when I’m thinking about how to motivate my children’s behavior, I like to simplify things by thinking of them as little birds pecking away at a lever in order to earn their food pellet. The term shaping is used in behavioral psychology to describe the process of teaching a subject to perform a certain behavior by reinforcing successive approximations of the desired response, just as you patiently guide your children toward desired behaviors. I would like for all of my children to be polite and thankful. For example, I would like my 2 year-old to ask for milk by saying, “Mom, may I please have a glass of milk” but I can’t expect him to magically start speaking this way when he first develops communication skills. First, he cries to tell me he wants milk. Then he grabs or points. Then he says “milk”, then “milk please”, and so on until one day he learns to say the complete, polite request. Each of those steps was a successive approximation of the desired response and was rewarded along the way, but once he was ready to move on to the next step I had to stop reinforcing the previously rewarded behavior (i.e., when he was able to speak, I waited to give him the milk until he said “milk” rather than when he simply pointed to the refrigerator). Fortunately children have a well developed understanding of spoken language long before they can verbally express their own thoughts, so I could prompt him for the behavior by saying, “Would you like a milk? Say, “Milk please Mom.” Now that he can say complete sentences, I don’t hand him the milk until he makes a polite request. I have shaped that behavior over time. You have likely been through this process with your children for any number of desired behaviors. Remember that you have the power to set the ultimate goal, so if you want your children to be polite, don’t stop at “Mom, can I have a glass of milk?” (or one of my pet peeves, “Mom, I want milk.”). Choose not to reinforce that behavior until “please” is added at the end of the sentence.

The same concept of shaping applies to training your children to say “thank you”. In addition to asking politely for the glass of milk, I would like my children to say “thank you” when I hand it to them. This is a behavior that is learned through your child’s interactions with you and other people in their lives with whom they spend a significant amount of time, so get on the same page with other caregivers. Often young children have the best manners when they are new talkers because it is so rewarding for them to receive positive reinforcement from you when they say in their adorable little voices, “thank you” as you hand them the glass (or sippy cup) of milk with a big smile. Your praise acts as a reinforcer beyond the reinforcer of receiving the milk itself. This process of using reinforcement to pair the act of you handing the child the milk with a loving smile with the desired response of them saying “thank you” is called acquisition. This polite behavior may fade over time as the novelty of your child’s response wears off and you react less and therefore unintentionally withdraw part of the reinforcer (they are still getting the milk but your loving smile is not prominent). This is called extinction because you have extinguished, or removed, the connection between being given the milk and them saying “thank you” by removing the reinforcer.

Shaping is then needed to re-aquire the behavior. Now the reward must not be provided until the desired behavior is exhibited (i.e., you don’t give them the milk until they say “thank you”). The most commonly heard cue from parents trying to teach their children to say “thank you” is “What do you say?” after the child already has the milk in their hands. Taking a lesson from behavioral psychology, you’ll find that the desired response is more quickly learned and more consistently exhibited if you without the reward until after the child says “thank you.” To do this you might say “What do you say?” or “What’s the magic word?” while still holding the milk in your hand, but I prefer more subtle techniques like offering the child the milk but not releasing it until they say “thank you”. Don’t think of this as a tug of war but rather, picture your child’s surprised reaction as they go to the grab the milk and discover that it has not been released (this lesson is best taught with sippy cups or water bottles for spilling concerns). Without saying a word, you offer an expectant look (eyebrows raised with a knowing smile), and it’s as though you can actually see gears turning in their heads as they think through “What on earth is mom doing? What is she waiting for? Oh, I need to say thank you.” This can be such a fun learning moment; I have found that my children and I usually leave these interactions with a big smile on our faces, rather than the child feeling like they’re being nagged, yet again, to have good manners. This brings us full circle to the idea of maximizing reinforcement in your parenting. This is an example of negative reinforcement because I’m stopping something bad (hanging onto the milk) in order to increase the likelihood of a behavior (saying “thank you”). Reinforcement can be so powerful in your parenting and is so much more enjoyable as a parenting technique compared to punishment. See if you can get better manners out of your kids this week by being an operant conditioning pro!

When Will My Child Be Ready For Harry Potter?

A dear friend of mine just asked me for advice on what age group is ready to read/watch Harry Potter, as I love giving parental advice and have read/seen all the Harry Potter stories. For some quick background, her nearly 5 year-old expressed strong interest in reading suspenseful stories when her grandfather was recently visiting. This sweet girl is very precocious and the parents have done a fabulous job helping her to develop an early love of reading. They have already read the first 2 books together and seen the corresponding movies. Before embarking further down the Harry Potter path, mom wanted to check with me because she had heard the later stories are geared toward an older audience and was worried that she may have introduced the series too soon.

The short answer is yes, it’s too early for Harry Potter, even for an advanced reader with an interest in thrilling stories. The series becomes markedly more mature in books 3 and 4 and is really quite intense in books 5, 6, and 7 – lots of tension and sorrow. I suggested to my friend that they might read book 3 if they’re not ready to take a break yet but to definitely wait to watch the movie. Dementors are the stuff that nightmares are made of. A Harry Potter lover will definitely want to read the entire series at once, so plan ahead with your kids and suggest the first book only when they’re old enough to read the seventh book. That probably means around age 10 or 11. That may seem ridiculously old if you think of this as a children’s book but remember that Harry is 11 years old when he first goes to Hogwarts and he ages 7 years during the series so if you wait to introduce your child to the character until he’s closer to that age, he’ll probably enjoy the series even more.

How can you possibly know what books are appropriate for your kids without having read them all previously? I rely on as a reference tool for age appropriate media.  Having objective data is really helpful when your kids want to watch a movie that you think is too mature; I just check this website with them and show them the age recommendations and they understand that they have to wait. Common Sense Media has a whole page on the Harry Potter series:

The good news I offered my friend is there are so many other amazing series for her daughter to read now. The book Some of My Best Friends are Books by Judith Wynn Halstead is an excellent resource for advanced readers which provides all sorts of good book ideas.  Librarians at your child’s school and public library will likely have great ideas for your child’s age range, in addition their teachers. My kids loved The Chronicles of Narnia; there are a few scary elements but it’s more of a fantasy world (the beloved humans all turn out fine).  Boys in particular love the Warriors series about rival cat clans. My girl loves the Thea Stilton adventure series (companion to the Geronimo Stilton series).  That one is neat because it has these wild fonts interspersed throughout the text so it’s fun for parents to read and have early readers jump in to read the fun font words without being overwhelmed by reading the entire page.  The Percy Jackson series is really entertaining and has two books called Greek Gods and Greek Heroes that were quite educational and we all enjoyed.  There are some gruesome elements but it has a lighthearted tone and again is fantasy with gods and goddesses, being set in the past so it’s more removed for the kids, but there is some mature language. The A to Z Mysteries and Milo & Jazz Mysteries series have been big hits here and are very benign for younger children.  So far nobody in my family has loved Nancy Drew but that’s an option along with Hardy Boys. So, I told my friend to blame it on her psychologist friend and objective data from Common Sense Media but that Harry Potter should wait while one of these other series will have her daughter captured in no time!

On a side note, I strongly believe that the Harry Potter books, and all books for that matter, should be read before any movies based on the books are watched. Especially for children who are endlessly creative, let them envision the characters in their own unique way for the entire lifespan of the story, then superimpose Hollywood’s version of the characters by watching all the films together. It’s fun to ask the kids how the actors and actresses differed from or were similar to their own image of the storybook characters. Happy reading!

Community Matters Interview

It was such a treat to be interviewed on the radio show Community Matters on KZUM 89.3FM on 1/29/17.  The show has a focus on positivity and building stronger communities, and the host Nick Hernandez was remarkably well-versed on psychology terms and theories.  We covered topics like what motivated me to start this blog and where I see it going in the future, as well as subject matter including the 5 C’s, friendship, and even how personality traits can be used to help guide our career paths.  Thank you to all my supporters who listened to the show!  Here’s the direct link if you missed it:

Keep Those Fingers Safe and Those Nights Quiet

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!

How to Keep Your Little One from “Bonking”

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.

Pack Those Snacks With Protein

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!

How Much “Screen Time” Does Mommy Get?

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.


Mr. Handy to the Rescue!

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.

A Good Mom Friend is Priceless

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.

3, 2, Thank You!

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.