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!