A parent’s eternal struggle: getting our kids to do what we want! Bribe? Take away privileges? Spank?
Generally speaking, children respond better to positive reinforcement (rather than punishment). This means putting a behavior modification system in place in your home. I know, sounds totally exciting right?? In addition, in order to make this work, you must also have Consistency (with a capital “C”!). Consistency sucks. It is the bane of my existence as a parent, the thorn in my side, the niggle I try to ignore.
Ever hear of Pavlov’s dogs? Pavlov set up this sadistic experiment in which dogs were placed in a box that had a lever and a chute. Some dogs had chutes that always dispensed treats when they hit the lever with their nose. Some dogs had treats dispensed sporadically. This meant that maybe 4 times out of 10, they’d get a treat. And the last group of dogs had a whole lot of nothin’ coming out of their chutes. The dogs who always got treats began eagerly hitting that lever until they were totally full on treats. They got it: do this, get that. Cause, effect. I am the cause, the treat follows. After a while though, they got bored and lazy because it was so predictable. The last group of course, ceased hitting the lever after just a few tries cuz hey, they weren’t getting anything out of it! But the second group, they hit the lever more than anyone because they never knew when they’d get rewarded for their appropriate behavior. They would obsessively hit the lever, probably thinking, “It gives me a treat sometimes, I know it does!! Three hits ago, I got a treat. This DOES work. One more time, just one more time….” Pavlov created canine gambling addicts basically.
What does this mean for us as parents? I have no idea, I just thought it was a cool story.
No, really, it means we must be consistent if we want quick results AND positive reinforcement is the best way to go about this. Will our kids become lazy about their appropriate behaviors (i.e. manners, doing chores without asking, etc). Yep. Then we start the system over again, give them new “treats” to be excited about to get them back on track. But we also remind them as they are winding down on a particular chart or almost finished filling a marble jar, that they should be doing these things because it is good for them and good for their family and that the incentive was just to get them into a good habit. Otherwise the incentive becomes, well, habit-forming.
Now, some people don’t like this idea, as it reminds them too much of dog training (I wonder why…) but think of it this way: you are reinforcing a behavior until it becomes a good habit so you don’t have to nag them so much and ….there was another reason…oh right, so they become good productive adults when they are older who can take care of themselves. Got it.
I find the best way to do this is to take something they really love to do (for our boys it is hands down playing the Wii) and only let them have it when they’ve earned it. For Gabe, for a while, it was using the potty. I created little paper tokens for one hour of game playing. Every time he went on the potty, he got a token. He was fully potty trained in a week after months, looooonnngg months I tell you, of near daily accidents and crying fits (although I stopped doing that after a while).
For Ian, it has been an arduous struggle with his school behavior. They have a green, yellow, red system in place. If he comes home in the yellow or red, no games. If he comes home in the green, he gets a token. Here’s where consistency comes in: I have to remember to give him the token, set the timer when he wants to play, and collect a token when he’s “spent” it.
Once you get kids into a routine, they are pretty insistent on it, so do something simple and manageable. Also, and this is key, only tackle one behavior at a time! Ignore the other behavior you are having issues with or tie them all together: your biggest pet peeve is cleaning their room but your child isn’t so keen on brushing teeth or setting the table either? Do a chart for the day, with a list of behaviors that have to be accomplished in order to receive a token. Otherwise, if you have multiple systems set up for multiple issues, it will be confusing, complicated, harder to maintain and ultimately less effective because there is no focus. This idea can be applied to even the scariest behaviors, such as hitting or biting or not staying in bed.
However, the system will always succeed or fail based on the behavior of you the parent, not the child. Don’t deviate from the system midway. Don’t change up the rules or add on behaviors before you’ve gotten the first one under control. Focus focus focus people! And be patient. Be ready to do this for as long as it takes. And for those of you tackling a behavior you’ve been struggling with for a long time, it will take an equally long time to instill the new behavior! But you can do it!!
A great book to help you set up your system is Rewards for Kids! Ready-to-Use Charts & Activies for Positive Parenting by Virginia M Shiller, PhD. It is available at BarnesandNoble.com, but apparently, it is out of stock in every Barnes and Noble store from here to Virginia—no lie! When I tried to look for other local stores selling it, I get nothing but websites for the book but several have free shipping! This book includes a slew of charts as well as lots of anecdotes about how to use them. The book is set up to discuss particular behavior issues, with several different stories about the same or similar issues, followed by which chart was used and how. I found it incredibly helpful and we’ve used charts from this several times now!
Your other option, depending on the behavior, is using a responsibility chart and you can buy those ready to go! Melissa and Doug make a great wooden one! I buy my Melissa and Doug stuff at Kids Klothes Consignment nowadays. They have a great selection and seem to be always running sales!
All in all, you, as the parent, you need to get creative, utilizing what your child loves, keep it positive and simple, keep it consistent and you will do well!
Used positive reinforcement yourself? Share what works for you in the comments section!