How to Train Your Children to Behave on Cue

February 22nd, 2008.

The dictionary defines the word cue as anything that excites to action; stimulus. Taking that into consideration, it is safe to say that in the course of an average day, adult humans respond to all sorts of cues. We respond to:

*Visual Cues. We stop at red lights.

*Sound cues. Upon hearing a siren, we pull over to the side of the road.

*Hand signals. When someone holds out a hand in greeting, we raise ours to shake it.

So deeply ingrained in our minds are these cues that we don’t even realize we’re responding to them. Furthermore, we rarely consider how difficult it would be for us to ignore them. For example, the next time someone holds out his hand to shake yours, I want you to hold your hands firmly at your side. The only consequence to refusing to shake someone’s hand is a funny look from the other person, yet it’s shockingly hard to do. The urge to respond to the cue is incredibly strong.

Yet, should you innocently suggest to a parent the way to get their children to behave is to train them to respond to cues, they defensively snap, “It’s a child! Not a dog!”

Well…yeah. Obviously a child is not a dog. However, a child is ultimately just an animal. Just because humans have the ability to recognize their own mortality does not mean we are ‘above it all.’ We are still driven by the same instincts and impulses as the rest of the animal kingdom. And as such, we are able to be trained via cues.

Because I’m a giving sort of person, I’m going to teach you all how to turn your insufferable little brats into model children using various cuing techniques. My methods are based very heavily on the theories of operate conditioning, timing, and positive/negative reinforcement. More importantly, they work.

But before I get into what does work, first let me explain what doesn’t. In a word? Punishment.

For the sake of clarity, I’m going to define punishment as ‘negative reinforcement that occurs too far after the undesirable behavior to make an impact.’ For example, say a child breaks a glass vase in another room unbeknown to the parent. Upon discovery of the broken vase (three hours after it was broken) the parent decides to reprimand the child by taking away his television privileges. The parent pats himself on the back for a job well done, but in reality, the punishment did nothing to dissuade the child from breaking things in the future.

Ultimately, punishments are a waste of time. This is why our prisons remain full despite stiffer sentencing and why self absorbed jackasses continue to park illegally despite hefty parking tickets. Punishments simply occur too long after the behavior to make a lasting impact. Now consider, for a second, if every time you parked your car illegally, it instantly burst into flames. I’m betting even the most self absorbed of jackasses would start parking where they were supposed to.

The only purpose punishment serves in child rearing is to make the parent feel better. It rarely deters bad behavior. If anything, it actually makes the poor behavior worse as the child learn to ‘cover up’ his crime in order to avoid more punishment.

If you remember one thing when it comes to shaping good behavior in children, remember timing is everything. If the reinforcement doesn’t occur instantly after the behavior, it is innately worthless. This is true whether you are applying negative reinforcement or positive AKA punishments or rewards.

I notice a lot of parents nowadays attempting to reward good behavior with a trip to the store to pick out a prize. Super Nanny told them to do this and she’s British, so it must be effective.

(Note: Why do Americans tend to worship anyone with a funny accent?)

A drive to the store to pick out a prize is a fruitless endeavor considering the reward arrives too late to make a solid impact in the child’s mind. It makes no difference if the reward is a walking, talking, peeing, pooping doll capable of doing your daughter’s math homework. If it’s not placed in your daughter’s hand directly after the behavior occurred it’s a waste of money. It is far better to place a small piece of chocolate in her hand right after she cleans her room.

Since we’re on the subject of candy as a motivator, let me point out that the rarer a reward is, the more effective it becomes. So if you feed your spawn candy for breakfast, lunch and dinner (And I strongly suspect you do considering how portly the motherfuckers all are), then candy makes a poor reward. In my case, I never give children junk food unless I’m rewarding good behavior. And even then, I only give the candy in very small quantities. The child quickly learns that the only way to get a small piece of candy is to actively work for it.

The fat Mothers with the fat kids are probably screaming, “Eating disorders! You’re going to give them all eating disorders!” right around now. However, the ultimate goal in training cues is to make the behavior so ingrained that it becomes unconscious. For example, if a child spends his whole childhood reacting to a cue of an empty plate or a full stomach by putting his dirty dishes in the kitchen sink, by the time he reaches adulthood, that behavior will become automatic. So if you train your child to, say, clean his entire room for a Hershey’s kiss, in adulthood, it is likely that the child will refrain from junk food until they’ve exerted themselves physically. There’s nothing disorderly about that.

However, if you don’t want to use a food based reward, that’s more than understandable. It really doesn’t matter what the reward is anyway. You can motivate your child with TV time, money, a game, computer time or toys. Hell, you can reward your child with colorful Popsicle sticks as long as you take the time to convince him they’re cool. As I said before, what the reward is doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is when you give it.

This is why some children consistently throw temper tantrums at grocery stores no matter how many stickers you promise to put on their charts at home if they’re good. Getting a sticker on a chart is not effective because it’s located at home thereby making instant gratification impossible. However, if the embarrassed parent who desperately wants to avoid the angry stares of the other patrons (responding, I might add, to negative reinforcement instantly given himself) breaks down and gives the child a treat to get it to shut the fuck up already FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, the parent has instantly rewarded bad behavior. Not only that, but because the reinforcement was applied so effectively, the bad behavior is likely to occur again…and again…and again.

God help us.

OK, so now you know that when it comes to training your child to behave on cue, you must utilize both negative and positive reinforcement. Not only that, but you also know that timing is imperative. So how do you take that information and translate it into real world situations? Read on!

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