Training Children Part 3: Reinforcing Good Behavior

March 11th, 2008.

Read part one of this article here.

Read part two of this article here.

I’ve noticed that most people are very quick to point out what their children are doing wrong.

A kid can color nicely on a pad of paper for months on end, but no one has shit to say about where and how well he colors until he scribbles on the wall. I see parents in restaurants adamantly lecturing and threatening their misbehaving children all the time. Yet very rarely do I ever see parents stop their conversation to tell their children how proud they are when the kids are quietly doing puzzles at the table.

It’s far easier to shape good behavior than it is to manage bad behavior. If you want well behaved children, you’ve got to reward them when they’re behaving correctly. And yes, sometimes that means you have to reward behaviors such as ‘not fighting’ or ‘being quiet.’ If you have a mental block that prevents you from rewarding your children when they’re technically not doing anything, please get over it now…unless, of course, you like it when your little hoodlums bounce off the fucking walls 24-7.

Following is a list of ways you can positively reinforce good behavior. These techniques are my favorite because they honestly make the biggest and fastest impact on a child’s behavior. Not only that, but they actually make childcare more fun for the adult as well.

Method 4: Train an Incompatible Behavior

One of my personal pet peeves is a child who climbs and jumps all over the furniture. I’ve known kids who do handstands on chairs and stretch out on coffee tables like they’re goddamn bunk beds. Because I’m not in the business of buying new shit every month, I usually consider training children to utilize each piece of furniture for its intended purpose a priority.

In my particular case, the couch was the most abused piece of furniture in the household. So I told my most notorious couch jumper that every time I held up two fingers (My hand signal), I expected him to sit on the couch as quickly and nicely as he could. Then, every time I saw him standing on, jumping on, or otherwise abusing the couch, I quietly held up two fingers.

It’s physically impossible for him to do a handstand on the couch and sit nicely on it at the same time, isn’t it?

The first few times I did this, he obviously forgot. So I prompted him, “What are you supposed to do when you see me hold up 2 fingers?”

On cue, he would rush to sit on the couch as nicely and quietly as he could. My reward for this was a Hershey’s kiss. At first, the reward came every time he quit what he was doing to sit nicely on the couch. After I was positive he knew exactly what I expected of him, I would only reward him for responding to the cue very quickly. Then, I started randomly rewarding him when I saw him sitting on couch nicely even though I never gave him a cue. I would say to him, “Genius! How did you know I was about to hold up 2 fingers?”

At first, he would sit nicely on the couch merely because he never knew when he might get a Hershey’s kiss for doing something so easy. But after awhile, sitting on the couch became a habit and I no longer had to reward him for it at all.

Please keep in mind that I never told the kid, “I really hate it when you jump on the couch, so I’m going to give you a Hershey’s kiss when you don’t.” Hell, I never even mentioned that the couch jumping irritated me in the first place. Personally, I never like to tell kids when they’re annoying me lest they file it away in their savvy little brains to use on a day when they’re in the mood to push my buttons.

Instead, I refrained from dealing with the bad behavior altogether. Generally, it’s much easier to train an incompatible behavior than it is to scream, “Will you sit the fuck down FOR THE LOVE OF GOD!” a million times.

Method 5: Put the bad behavior on cue

This works so well with screaming children, I can’t believe people don’t do it more often. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that parents secretly like saying, “Please be quiet! Please don’t yell in the house! Be quiet! STOP YELLING YOU LITTLE ABORTION” over and over again instead.

I tell children that every time I clap my hands, I want them to run around the house screaming as loud as they can. Then, when I hold my fingers to my lips, I want them to be talk in a normal tone of voice until I clap again. If they respond to both cues, I may surprise them with a reward.

Kids absolutely love this game, so I play it with them often. The first day, I may clap my hands every half an hour. I may even join in with the running around and screaming like a goddamn lunatic. I rarely even have to reward this behavior considering that the actual game is so fun it’s almost a reward in itself.

After a couple of days, I ever so slightly reduce how many times per day I clap my hands. After a couple of weeks, the difference in the amount of times I clap my hands is significant. Then one day, very stealthily, I just quit clapping my hands altogether.

What a coincidence. No more screaming children.

Method 6: Shape good behavior

This is probably the most effective while simultaneously being the most underused method in existence. Not only that, but it’s actually very simple, in theory: Reward behavior you’d like to see again. However, I notice a lot of parents don’t like to reward a child unless the child goes ‘above and beyond’ what is expected of him. If that’s your parenting policy, fine. Just don’t be surprised if you have a real fucking brat who goes ‘above and beyond’ every year around Christmas time.

Actually, just this past week I was practicing this with a little girl who was only 3 years old. I was attempting to shape polite manners. In the middle of the afternoon, she walked up to me and said, “I’m thirsty!”

I didn’t answer her. Instead, I picked up a magazine and started flipping through it like I was the only one in the room. The little girl thought for a minute and then said, “V? May I please have a glass of milk?”

I jumped out of my chair so fast you would have thought someone lit my ass on fire. “Of course you can have a glass of milk!” I told her, “Any girl with manners as perfect as those can have all the milk she wants!”

As I walked to the fridge and poured her milk, I went on and on and on about how adorable little girls with good manners are. After I handed her the glass of milk, she enthusiastically said, “Thank you!”

I dramatically clutched my heart and insisted that my body could not handle this level of cuteness. I implied that if she kept this behavior up, I might just keel over dead after having a cute-attack. She giggled happily.

I sat with her as she ever so daintily sipped her milk. I was sure to let her know that the way she was sipping out of her glass was especially regal and speculated that she must come from a long line of royal princesses. She beamed.

When she was all done, she picked up her glass and dropped it into the kitchen sink. I responded by hurling my body to the floor, twitching and convulsing in throes of a full-fledged cute-attack.

“Oh no!” I moaned, “I can’t take this! Please, thank you, and putting your cup in the sink? Are you trying to kill me? What’s next, Princess? Are you going to pick up your toys without me asking? Oooohhh! I can’t take it! I can’t take the cuteness!”

Laughing hysterically, she ran into her room and starting picking up her toys.

To most, a glass of milk is nothing more than a glass of milk. But to me, a glass of milk is a training opportunity. I used it to encourage the word ‘please,’ the words ‘thank you,’ the behavior of putting dirty dishes in the sink, the behavior of sipping your drink carefully, and even got lucky and managed to wrangle a clean bedroom out of it too.

Do you want your child to do his homework after school every day? Well, when he does, why not say something like, “Wow, you’re really working hard. A boy as hard working and ambitious as you could probably use a cookie or two to keep your engine running, eh?”

Do you want your kids to stop fighting and arguing in the car? Every time they’re quiet back there, drive past an ice cream shop. Right when the ice cream shop is in view, say, “You know what? You guys are being so quiet and nice back there that we’re stopping at this Dairy Queen right now for a treat!”

Remember that you have to reward the behavior instantly for maximum impact. So if your child was incredibly well behaved and mannerly at a party (And trust me, I’ve seen 5 year olds work adult oriented parties like they were red carpet celebrities), don’t wait until after the party to stop for a treat. You’ve got to take your child aside at the party, and say, “I am so proud of the way you’re behaving right now!” and drop a little toy in her hands. Training good behavior takes preparation.

Timing is everything. Timing is everything. Timing is everything.

Method 7: Set your child up to succeed.

It’s common sense to me, but parents always try to push their kids past their limits and then they have the nerve to act flummoxed when the child doesn’t perform.

If your kids are sick, tired, hungry, bored, or just having an all around bad day, please don’t put them in situations where they can practice bad behavior.

Listen, I know you’re craving cheese sticks after the movie. Heck, your kid may have even behaved superbly all the way up until the credits rolled. Even though it’s now past his bedtime, you’re hoping he can handle another hour in a restaurant…especially if you promise him ice cream if he’s good.

You’re an idiot.

The only thing you’re doing by pushing a kid past his limit is setting him up to fail. If you set him up to fail too often, he will get way too many opportunities to practice bad behavior and eventually those bad behaviors will become habit.

I don’t fucking care if you’ve had a play date scheduled for weeks and you’re afraid the other Mother will think you’re a flake if you cancel. If your kid is having a bad day, he’s having a bad fucking day. Don’t set him up to fail in a social situation just because you have the mentality of a prepubescent girl. It’s not your job to impress the other Mommies. It’s your job to raise your fucking kid.

Set your kids up to succeed. Make it really hard for them to fail. And eventually, they’ll ‘wow’ you.

Right around now, some of you are probably wondering how I know this stuff works. To that I say, “Duh. Because I’ve done it.”

Furthermore, not only have I used this on generally well behaved kids who only needed some fine tuning, but I’ve used it on children with very severe behavioral problems. We’re talking puppy kickers and fire starters, people. So if I can take a little boy who used to solve all of his problems with a swift roundhouse kick to the face and mold him into the kind of kid who opens doors for old ladies, then you can at least train your kids not to kick the back of my fucking seat in a movie theater.

So get to work!

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