Family Works: Speaking on Reinforcement
by By ROB COOMBS ID. Min. Ph.D.
Aug 26, 2012 | 1297 views | 0 0 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
We’ve all witnessed this scene before. A child is screaming in a store. Mother is very frustrated and the child is unrelenting. She has seen her favorite candy on a shelf and, of course, she wants it. There is simply no reasoning with her. Stomping her little feet, the more mom attempts to settle her down, the louder she becomes. Mother can feel the judgmental glances of other shoppers. She knows what they are thinking, “Can’t she control her own child?” Embarrassing, to put it mildly.

What’s a mother to do? If she gives in and buys her the candy, certainly the crying will stop. But this comes at a tremendous price. Without question, mom has taught her an invaluable lesson. From the child’s point of view, screaming, stomping, and demanding has worked. She will quickly store this victory in her young brain so that next time she wants candy, her brain will send the message — scream, stomp, demand = candy. Who could blame this child for using such tactics? After all, they give her exactly what she wants.

In psychology, we call this positive reinforcement. The behavior yields the desired response. Positive reinforcement is a very powerful teacher since most of us find it relatively easy to learn behaviors that get us what we want.

Once these behaviors are learned, we use them repeatedly and the longer we do so, the harder it is to stop the behavior. This is why individuals may become trapped in destructive behaviors (such as this child) because the behaviors produced a desired positive response.

Equally powerful, but not nearly as obvious, is negative reinforcement. Like positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement also encourages behavior. Unlike positive reinforcement that gives us something we want, negative reinforcement removes something we don’t want. In the example with the little girl, the mother received a negative reinforcement when she gave in and bought the candy. She removed the child’s screaming. This, too, is filed in mother’s brain as a solution — remove screaming, stomping, and demanding behaviors = giving candy.

In this case, the negative reinforcer is destructive, but there are many, many negative reinforcements that are constructive. An umbrella removes rain, an aspirin removes pain, and a coat removes the cold from your body. All of these are constructive uses of negative reinforcers.

Since both positive and negative reinforcers encourage behavior, what’s a mother to do if she wants her child to stop screaming in a store? Only punishment reduces or terminates behavior. Good parenting requires good judgement concerning how to appropriately use punishment as an effective teaching tool.

The best punishment is always a closely related consequence to the offense committed. In this case, the best response would be to stop shopping, pick the child up in your arms, check out whatever is in your cart, and take her home.

The next day, prepare to go shopping again. Most likely the child will become very excited about the prospect of going to the store. Firmly tell her that yesterday she taught you with her behavior (“remember how you were screaming, stomping your feet and demanding the candy”) that she really wasn’t ready to behave like she should at the store.

So today, you will stay with Daddy (or a sitter) and Mommy will go shopping by herself. This also teaches the child an invaluable lesson. If I misbehave, I suffer the consequences. This reality is filed in her young brain and will make her think twice before misbehaving again.