Training Children Part 2: Effective Negative Reinforcement

February 24th, 2008.

Part one of this article can be found here.

An important thing to consider when you’re shaping good behavior is that it works best when the person doesn’t realize you’re doing it. This is just as true whether you’re shaping behavior in a 6 year old child or a 43 year old man.

I read an article a long time ago about a business owner who wanted to train his employees to come to meetings on time.

Now, many other business owners will tell you this is a nearly impossible task. Someone always comes late. As a result, a lot of business meetings typically start 10-15 minutes later than they’re scheduled while everyone waits for the stragglers to make their way into the room. Of course, this practice punishes the people who come on time and the end result is everyone very effectively ends up being trained to come late.

However, this business owner was an efficient sort of fellow and he was determined to get his employees into the habit of showing up on time. So instead of waiting for the stragglers, he would start each and every meeting promptly when it was scheduled. When a straggler tried to sneak into the room late, he would pause, frown, and then continue with the meeting as if nothing happened. The people that came on time would also participate with the pausing and frowning. In essence, everyone gave the person who was late instant negative reinforcement for bad behavior.

[Obviously, I’m defining negative and positive reinforcement a little differently than the ‘official’ way. This is only for the sake of clarity as I’ve notice a lot of laymen will get confused if you start delving into the intricate differences between negative punishment, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and so on and so forth. Also, I’m just trying to write a short Internet guide on this crap. Not a fucking book.]

Within two weeks, people were showing up to each and every meeting on time and all it really took to accomplish this goal was some frowning. Now part of the reason this business owner was so successful was because he utilized proper timing. His employees were very subtly being embarrassed at the exact second they committed the bad behavior, so they developed a very strong aversion to repeating it in the future.

However, another reason this worked so well was because the employees didn’t realize they were being manipulated. I imagine if the business owner had said to them, “Now, I really want you to come on time to my meetings. So in order to convince you to do this, I’m going to give you dirty looks and make you feel bad when you’re late” a few of his employees would have told him to piss off and showed up late just to spite him.

So keeping that in mind, I strongly suggest that you refrain from telling your kids the only reason you’re rewarding them for good behavior is because you’re trying to trick them into not being bad anymore. Or else, I’m sure some of your kids will give you the toddler equivalent to the middle finger and scream until you contemplate dipping your head into a deep fat fryer.

For anyone who read that last analogy and deemed it painfully obvious, don’t laugh. I’ve actually heard parents say stupid shit like that to their kids. Then they actually look confused when Miss Mini Rebel responds by taking her clothes off and bolting down the street bare ass naked.

Another thing that one must consider when shaping good behavior is that you only have to reinforce the behavior you’re trying to shape for roughly 60 days. If you are extremely consistent for 60 days, the behavior becomes habit. So if your goal is to get your child to make his bed every morning, after the 60 day mark, bed making has likely become part of the child’s morning routine. I’d still recommend reinforcing the behavior periodically, but you don’t have to be as diligent about applying reinforcement as you were when you first started.

(I hate to say it, but because of the 60 day rule, it is pretty pointless for non custodial parents to attempt to shape behavior. The 60 days almost always have to be in a row. So if you only get your kids every other weekend, you’re pretty much screwed. It sucks, but if the custodial parent is not on the same page as you, your kids are probably going to end up little bastards. If you don’t accept this now, you’ll likely spend the next 2 decades contemplating driving your car into a goddamn tree.)

I’d also recommend only shaping a few behaviors at a time…especially when you’re dealing with a young child. For optimal results, it’s best not to overload the child lest he become overwhelmed and unresponsive.

Right now, I’d like everyone to take a good, long, hard look at their child and really envision the behaviors they want to encourage. It is important to be very specific while making this mental list. For example, ‘I want my child to get better grades in school’ is far too vague when it comes to shaping behavior.

Instead, say something like, ‘I’d like my child to sit down at the table and do his homework right after school every day without being asked.’

You can encourage a child to develop good study habits. However, you cannot wave a magic wand and expect a report card full of A’s.

Once you’ve got a reasonable list of behaviors you’d like to shape, you must next utilize a few key techniques. There are both positive techniques and negative. I, of course, recommend a combination of the two. But for the sake of clarity, I’m going to explain each one individually.

Method 1: Make the bad behavior impossible.

If your children always fight over which television show they’re going to watch, you can eliminate this behavior completely by throwing away the television set. This method is quick, easy, and extremely effective. I guarantee you, if you toss out that TV, you’ll never have to hear anyone whine about Spongebob Squarepants ever again.

The only real problem with this method is it’s not always practical. The TV set probably cost a lot of money and in getting rid of it, you’re also punishing yourself considering you’ll never be able to watch it again either. So it’s understandable if you’d rather not use this method with big, expensive pieces of household equipment.

But, if we’re talking about small things, it’s still pretty applicable. Two children fighting over a toy? Remove the toy. Daughter constantly slams her door? Remove the door. Kids leave wet towels all over the bathroom floor? Guess they’ve got to air dry from now on, baby.

A lot of parents don’t want to make the bad behavior impossible because it seems too severe and final a punishment. However, even using this method one time effectively will guarantee that you will never have to use it again.

I remember one time I took two small children to a restaurant. Almost immediately after being seated, the children started arguing. Very calmly, I stated, “If you raise your voices one more time, we will leave.”

A word about threats: never, ever, ever threaten. The only thing you accomplish when threatening your child is teaching him you don’t mean what you say. Constantly insisting that if your child misbehaves one more time, you are going to do something (really!) makes you look like a fucking asshole even to a 3 year old. So if you tell your teenage daughter that coming home late will result in the loss of her prom privileges, you better be fully fucking prepared to take away her prom at 11:01. Otherwise, you’re just being retarded.

I never threaten. I explain the consequences to bad behavior. If I say we’re leaving the next time voices are raised, we leave the very next time voices are raised. Period. Furthermore, once I take away a privilege, I never give it back. So if child asks me for ‘one more chance!’ and insists ‘he’ll be good this time!’ I will remain unmoved. He had his chance. He blew it. Hopefully next time, he’ll make a better decision. But ultimately, he has learned a very important lesson. Namely, I mean what I say.

But back to my two arguing children in the restaurant…

When I explained the consequences of their bad behavior, they immediately quieted down. Eventually, a waitress came over and took our order. All was well for about 10 minutes. Then, they started arguing again. Without saying a word, I stood up, placed $40 on the table to pay for the food that hadn’t arrived yet, and escorted the shocked children out of the restaurant.

Yeah. I basically threw away $40. But if you ask me, the lessons those children learned were priceless. Either way, teaching a child not to act like an asshole in a public place while simultaneously making sure they understand I always mean what I say is worth more than $40 to me.

Those children were ages 5 and 6 respectively. They never raised their voice in a restaurant again.

Method 2: Negatively reinforce bad behavior

People that have children who consistently fight over the television set are probably pretty annoyed with me right around now. As far as they are concerned, ending the fighting once and for all is just not worth their big screen plasma.

Fortunately, there is an alternative solution to this problem. In short, you have to negatively reinforce the fighting.

Before you do this, it’s only fair to explain the consequences to the bad behavior. The next time your children argue over the TV, simply say, “Every time you fight over that television set, it goes off for the night.”

Then, when they argue, quietly walk over to the television and switch it off. Ignore them completely when they protest. Likely you’ll hear them mutter, “See what you did!” to each other and that will be the end of it.

Now please, unless you very strongly suspect that your children are blubbering fucking idiots, refrain explaining the consequences to them again the next day if the whole war breaks out all over again. A lot of parents get into the habit of ‘gently reminding’ the kids over and over and over again what will happen if they break the rules. They say shit like, “Remember what happened yesterday when you guys fought over the TV?”

Of course they remember, you fucking douchebag. They’re opportunists, not morons.

Not only is reminding them a stupid, ridiculous waste of time, but ultimately, you are training your child to always expect a warning. You are turning your explanation of the consequences into a mere threat. Pretty soon, you will have them thinking, “I can get away with fighting all the way up until Mom threatens to turn off the TV. Then, I have to be quiet.”

If that’s your goal, fine. I, on the other hand, absolutely despise repeating myself. So once I’ve outlined the consequences of bad behavior and I’m positive the child understands what is expected of him, nothing more is said on the subject. My only job is to calmly and quietly turn that TV off the very second they start fighting.

Trust me, they’ll get the point.

Method 3: Extinction

This is probably the most difficult method to follow through with because it generally takes the longest to see results. Impatient parents will likely never see the fruits of a successful extinction because they give up on it far too quickly. Nevertheless, when you’ve inadvertently trained a child to misbehave, sometimes extinction is the only method that will work in getting rid of said bad behavior.

I assume the majority of people reading right now are grown adults. So let me ask you all this: what if every time you stomped your foot, I gave you $20? What do you think you’d do?

My guess is that you’d all stomp your feet a lot.

Now say you’ve been stomping your feet for $20’s for months. In fact, you’ve gotten so used to earning a $20 for every foot stomp, that stomping your feet has almost become a habit. Then, all of the sudden, one day you stomp you feet and instead of slipping you a $20, I just stare at you.

Obviously, you’d be pretty confused. At first, you might think I didn’t hear you. So maybe you’d stomp your feet louder. When that didn’t work, perhaps you’d stomp your feet quicker. And when that failed to get a reaction, you might just start jumping up and down like a raving fucking lunatic. After all, I’ve trained you to believe that foot stomping means money and here you are stomping your little heart out and you’re not getting jack shit and life isn’t fair and how could I do this to you and WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

And you all are grown adults!

Of course, if I hold my ground and refrain from giving you the $20 even after you escalated that behavior to nearly overwhelming degrees, eventually you’ll learn that the rules have changed. You’ll quick stomping your feet because, quite simply, it doesn’t work anymore.

Now apply that analogy to a child. If you train a child to believe that every time he throws a fit in a public place, you’ll buy him a candy bar, obviously he’s going to throw a lot of fits. If one day you change the rules on him and refuse to buy him a candy bar after he throws a fit, his behavior will likely escalate as he screams louder and louder for that candy. Hold your ground and your child will stop throwing fits for candy because it doesn’t work anymore.

That, my friends, is extinction.

Remember, if you give in even one time, you will start the entire fucking process all over again. Also, I hate you.

The Zen Master always wins in the end.

What are some positive ways to shape good behavior? To find out, keep reading here.

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