American psychologist, B. F. Skinner, coined the term, operant conditioning, to examine how the levers of reward and punishment can be used to modify behavior. Let’s take a deeper dive into his theory to look for a pearl or two that might help us modify the behavior of our children.
Two Types of Behaviors
Respondent behaviors, like pulling our hand back from a hot fire, or swimming to the surface when we need to breathe, take place automatically, without having to think.
Operant behaviors, on the other hand, are made under conscious control. Whether spontaneous or purposeful, people deliberately “operate” or control their behavior, impact their environment, and influence the rewards or consequences that then guide the learning progression.
According to Skinner, there are four levers for guiding behavior.
- Positive reinforcers are favorable responses, such as praise or rewards. These are intended to increase desirable behavior, such as complimenting a child for doing a great job with household chores.
- Negative reinforcers are the removal of unfavorable conditions, intended to increase desirable behavior, such as when a teacher grants students a night with no homework as a reward for completing quality work during class time.
- Positive punishment introduces unfavorable consequences, intended to decrease undesirable behavior, such as assigning a misbehaving child time standing in the corner as discipline for back talk.
- Negative punishments remove something desirable, intended to decrease undesirable behavior, such as taking away video games from a child as discipline for incessantly tattling on their brother.
Reinforcement influences what to do, punishment influences what not to do.
The levers of reinforcement influence children to feel good while nourishing self-esteem and self-confidence. The levers of punishment influence children to feel the opposite of good, and they may suppress undesirable behavior for a time, but when punishments are removed, the lessons learned in that moment tend to be quickly forgotten.
Nuances of Behavior Modification
Just as—if not more—important than the levers of operant conditioning, a healthy environment is crucial for influencing desirable behavior. By evaluating the people involved in a child’s life and their corresponding influences, we can identify external forces that may be helpful—or harmful. Sometimes, we can modify or remove certain triggers to make a difference. Mothers can learn more by getting side-by-side with their children, asking open-ended questions, and actively listening for feedback to then consider the best ways to help kids help themselves.
Sometimes, we can decrease an undesirable behavior while simultaneously increasing a desirable one. By working on more than one side of behavior modification simultaneously, lessons learned can be more impactful. Imagine that we know our child did something wrong, but without any evidence, we didn’t catch them red-handed. If we are consistent with assigning time in the “Thinking Chair” for lying (positive punishment), and we give acceptance, love, and forgiveness for telling the truth (positive reinforcement), we provide a dual incentive to develop the good habit of honesty.
Appropriate timing and frequency influence the effectiveness and the amount of time it will take for children to modify old behaviors or adopt new ones. Skinner identified several different schedules of reinforcement that impact the operant conditioning process, most notably: interval (fixed or variable), and ratio (fixed or variable). As every child and behavior is different, each schedule has pros and cons. Mothers should experiment to see which approach(es) work(s) best for each child and each behavior, within the context of getting the best overall results.
Lots of parents discipline children by putting them in timeout or making them stand in the corner. Not Skinnerian, but inspired by his research, let’s explore the “Thinking Chair,” where mothers assign a misbehaving child time to sit down for a set number of minutes (typically, equal to the age of the child). During their assigned time, the child is prompted to reflect on their behavior. As time wraps up (and tensions have subsided), mothers should calmly get on the same level as their child, eye-to-eye, and ask them to explain what happened, why they behaved the way they did, and how they’ll respond should a similar situation arise in the future. Important caveat: if they are disruptive during the assigned time, the clock starts over.
Through reinforcement and punishment, mothers can modify their children’s behavior. For best results, first reflect on how to approach each individual child, taking a pause to assess our own attitude as we confront them. How do we respond when they misbehave? Do we get angry and yell or do we calmly view missteps as opportunities to help them improve? Our familiarity with our child’s personality, along with their unique proclivities and idiosyncrasies, will help us push and pull the most appropriate levers at the most appropriate times with the most appropriate frequency.
Over more than half a century after its initial publication in 1957, Verbal Behavior has remained in demand and continues to be relevant.
Examines ideals we have taken for granted to consider the possibility of a behaviorist approach to human problems, envisioning a world in which humankind can make its greatest possible achievements.
PLEASE NOTE: As an Amazon Associate, Mothers Truly Matter earns from qualifying purchases. The information in this post should not be construed as providing specific psychiatric, psychological, or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist, or psychotherapist.