Exploit the Power of Positive Reinforcement
Developmental Factors and the Learning Process
Picture your child as a baby just a few days old. Several times every day your baby gets hungry, and, as babies do, cries. When you pop some milk into the baby’s mouth, the crying stops, replaced by sucking. This very clear change in behavior, based on a natural, instinctual reaction, can be referred to as a response to “material” reinforcement. While this is so natural that hardly anyone pays much attention to it, it is the very important first stage of a lifelong pattern of responding when provided “stuff,” continuing later as responses to such things as cookies and, later yet, to pay checks.
Now picture the same baby, three or four months later. The baby gets hungry and cries, just as before. But now when the baby spies mom hustling into view, typically the crying stops even before any food is provided, replaced by sucking motions, babbling, smiling, and flailing of arms and legs. While this change in behavior, not seen in the newborn, will not last long for a hungry baby, it is the beginning of another important, lifelong pattern, a response to social reinforcement. Almost always at first the response is seen in reaction to mothers, but typically it generalizes, carries over, pretty quickly to fathers, siblings, grandparents, and others who are close at hand.
What is so fascinating about this development is that within a very few weeks after birth your child’s behavior matures from innate and instinctual to learned. What once depended on satisfying hunger through milk now occurs because the mother, who has become associated with the milk, appears. This provides solid evidence of the capacity of even such young babies to learn and equally solid evidence that parents have a significant and direct impact on their child’s behavior. Knowing that you have so much influence should be very exciting – and perhaps sobering – to you as parents.
Responses to material reinforcement and to social reinforcement are two steps along the way to the third and final level, when the child has come to respond to internal reinforcement. This can also be seen as the goal of parenting, the stage in which the child has learned to take responsibility.
It is more difficult early in life to identify a perfect example of this third level but a couple of illustrations will serve to clarify the idea.
Picture your child, not yet walking but pulled up and holding on to a low table. The child sees a red ball out of reach a few feet away on the sofa. Dropping to crawl toward the ball, the child will lose track and never reach it. But the first time the child lets loose of the table, takes those few steps, and reaches the sofa, two wonderful things happen. First, by reaching the ball the child immediately achieves the material reinforcement. And second, observing parents fill the air with squeals of delight at those steps, thereby providing intense social reinforcement. With each repetition of the act which is followed by material and social reinforcement, the child’s proficiency in walking grows.
While it is true that there is a physiological maturational aspect of this process, when and how well the child moves through the learning process depends upon the payoff that the behavior elicits. The impact is so powerful that a few weeks later the child will be motoring around smoothly and confidently, leaving behind those clumsy first steps.
Another, admittedly odd, example has been helpful to parents in my classes.
Imagine a toddler who is well toilet-trained by two and a half or three years of age. Then imagine asking the child, at age five or six, to wet his or her pants. (No, I haven’t ever actually done this!) Chances are you couldn’t get so much as a drop, even if you asked many children. The reason is that, by five or six, children who were toilet trained by age three have so fully internalized their behavior that it is as if they are reinforcing themselves for using the toilet properly.
This odd example can be extended to the adult world:
Imagine yourself at a conference attended by a thousand people crammed into a large meeting room. On the way in, you all had breakfast with juice and coffee and everyone is seated at narrow tables containing tumblers and ice water. The room is stuffy and warm, the meeting long, and a lot of water is consumed. Within an hour or so, a lot of people are squirming in their seats. The lucky few seated near aisles slip out, gain some relief, and return, but you and the vast majority are left to sit in growing discomfort.
Now ask yourself: how likely are you during this experience to think, “Gee, this is so uncomfortable that I’m just going to let it go!” Probably none of the hundreds of adults sitting in considerable distress would even think of that simple solution. This is the end result of the process of internalizing reinforcement for relieving ones bladder only in certain places and at the right times, long after receiving material and social reinforcement for just that restraint during toddler-hood.