What do chickens, kids, screaming, and homework have in common? You’ll never guess so I will tell you. A basic psychology principle, let me explain.
Back in my doctoral program, I had a behavioral psychology class taught by Dr. Paul Robinson, who announced to all of us that our grade would be based on a final exam and the final exam would be taken by a chicken. We had to train this chick over the course of the semester to perform certain tasks. If the chicken passed the final then so would I, and I did. I realize that kids aren’t chickens, but there are some principles that can be useful as we address the behavior of how to stop our kids from screaming, whining, get them to do their homework, or get a chicken to do a few tricks. There is a basic behavioral psychology principle that transcends all areas and includes kids and chickens.
Reinforcement and punishment are two basic ways to change behavior. Reinforcement increases a behavior, if you want to see more of a behavior or a behavior you haven’t seen yet, then you need to reinforce those. Punishment decreases a behavior.
I want to challenge how we think of reinforcement and punishment. We usually associate good and positive with reinforcement and bad and negative with punishment. There is both positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishment. Instead of good or bad, think of positive and negative as math symbols, we are adding or subtracting, not labelling as good or bad.
Let’s look at the behaviors of screaming, or begging, or whining. When you add something in order to increase the behavior, this is a payoff. At the grocery checkout line, a child wants candy and the parent says, “No.” What does the child do? They start whining and begging. Please, please, please? I really want the candy. Please, please, please?” The volume increases and you finally say, “Fine, just be quiet, here take the candy.” You are reinforcing the behavior of whining and begging by giving, adding in the candy. The child decreases or subtracts the behavior of whining and begging for the payoff of the candy.
With whining or begging, we don’t want to see these behaviors so, to decrease we are going to use a punishment, we are going to take away something, not add. If we want to see more of the behavior, we would pick reinforcement. That is why it is important to understand behavioral psychology.
Which punishment would be most appropriate to decrease the screaming or the whining or the begging that you’re hearing from your kids? See if you can figure out why they’re doing it. If they are doing it to get something, don’t give in and get them the candy. Tell them no and if possible, remove them from the scene so they know you mean business. Usually for something like screaming or begging of whining, we want to use a negative punishment by taking away the thing they want in order to decrease that behavior. Basically, you are taking away the payoff. If they are whining for attention then ignoring the behavior is better.
Extinction curve, is another psychological term and it is where you ignore a behavior, you take away the payoff. The kid’s first thought is, “I must be losing my touch, better turn up the volume until they cave.” You must hold firm and outlast the volume. Remember, the child doesn’t care if it is positive or negative attention. If you are yelling at them, they are getting attention. The behavior will increase before it drops off so you must be consistent. Hang in there. When the child is not whining or begging, give lots of positive reinforcement, increase the attention.
By Dr. Paul Jenkins
Dr. Paul is an author, speaker, personal coach and positivity expert with 20+ years experience as a Professional Psychologist. His book Pathological Positivity and its pocket-sized companion Portable Positivity illuminate powerful principles that when applied can make an immediate difference in your life. Dr. Paul's channel Live On Purpose TV available on YouTube has a parenting playlist with a wide variety of subjects to help parents create positivity in their parenting. Click here to view the video or you can contact Dr. Paul at www.drpauljenkins.com.