The Law of Reinforcement

In the preceding chapters, we dealt with the proper parental response to a child's defiant "challenging behavior."  Now we turn our attention to the leadership of children where antagonism is not involved.  There are countless situations where the parent wishes to increase the child's level of responsibility, but that task is not easy.  How can a mother get her child to brush his teeth regularly, or pick up his clothes, or display table manners?  How can she teach him to be more responsible with money?  What can the parent do to eliminate obnoxious habits, such as whining, sloppiness, or apparent laziness?  Is there a solution to perpetual tardiness?

These kinds of behavior do not involve direct confrontations between parent and child, and should not be handled in the same decisive manner described previously.  It would be unwise and unfair to punish a youngster for his understandable immaturity and childishness.  A much more effective technique is available to use by the knowledgeable parent.

The first educational psychologist, E. L. Thorndike, developed an understanding of behavior in the 1920s that can be very useful for parents.  He called it the "law of reinforcement."  Later the concept became the basis for a branch of psychology known as behaviorism, which I resoundingly reject. Behaviorism was described by B. F. Skinner and J. B. Watson (mentioned earlier) and includes the unbelievable notion that the mind does not exist.  One of my college textbooks referred to behaviorism as "psychology out of its

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mind."  Well said!  It perceives the human brain as a simple switchboard, connecting stimuli coming in with responses going out.

Despite my disagreement with the extrapolation of Thorndike's writings, there is no question that the original concept can be helpful to parents.  Stated simply, the law of reinforcement reads, "Behavior which achieves desirable consequences will recur."  In other words, if an individual likes what happens as a result of his behavior, he will be inclined to repeat that act.  If Sally gets favorable attention from the boys on the day she wears a new dress, she will want to wear the dress again and again.  If Pancho wins with one tennis racket and loses with another, he will prefer the racket with which he has found success.  This principle is disarmingly simple, but it has interesting implications for human learning.

In the first edition of this book, I described the use of these techniques with our little dachshund, Sigmund Freud, (Siggy).  Old Siggy lived for fifteen years, but has now gone on to wherever feisty dogs go when they die.  It was fun training this stubborn animal by the use of reinforcement, which was the only thing that got his attention.  Most dachshunds will sit up without being taught to do so, for example, because it is a natural response for the long-bodied animals to make.  But not Siggy!  He was unquestionably the world's most independent animal.  During the first year of his life, I thought he was a little bit "slow" between the ears; the second year I began to think he might have been mentally deranged; eventually I came to see him as a recalcitrant, stubborn rascal who just wanted to do things his own way.

In short, it was difficult to entice Siggy to cooperate in any self-improvement programs without offering him an edible incentive.  He was particularly fond of cookies, however, and I utilized this passion to good advantage.  I propped him in a vertical position where he remained for only a second or two

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before falling.  Then I gave him a piece of an old-fashioned, chocolate chip cookie.  He loved it.

I sat him up again, and I fed him the goodie as he was falling.  Siggy bounced all around the room, trying to take the remaining cookies away from me--but there was only one way to continue the snack.  Even Siggy began to get that idea.

In about thirty minutes of this ridiculous exercise, the dachshund received the message loud and clear.  Once it hit him, he rarely had four feet on the ground at one time!  Throughout the day, he could be found propped up on his haunches, asking for a bite of something--anything.  Eventually, I was sorry I started the game, because I felt guilty ignoring him.  After all, it was my idea in the first place, and I was compelled to find him something to eat in the kitchen.

This reinforcement technique was also useful in teaching Siggy to go chase a ball (a fantastic demonstration of animal intelligence).  I threw the ball about ten feet out in front of us, then dragged Sig by the nape of the neck to where it lay.  I opened his mouth, put the ball in place, and dragged him back to the starting place.  An oatmeal cookie was waiting at the finish line.  It was even easier to get his cooperation this time because he began to grasp the concept of working for a reward.  That idea became firmly ingrained and Siggy became rather creative in applying it to his advantage.  If the family happened to eat dinner from trays in order to watch the evening news on television, Siggy stationed himself in the exact spot where everyone's line of vision crossed on the way to the tube.  There he sat, bobbing and weaving and begging for a bite.

More serious attempts have been made to teach sophisticated behavior to animals by the principles of reinforcement.  The results have been remarkable.  A pigeon was taught to examine radio parts moving by on a conveyor belt.  The bird evaluated each component and knocked the defective ones

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off the track, for which he received a pellet of grain.  He sat there all day long, concentrating on his work.  As one might imagine, the labor unions took a dim view of this process; the pigeon did not demand coffee breaks or other fringe benefits, and his wages were disgracefully low.  Other animals have been taught to perform virtually human feats by the careful application of rewards.

Let me hasten to acknowledge what some of my readers might be thinking at this point.  There is an unbridgeable chasm between children and animals.  What do these techniques have to do with kids?  Just this: Human beings are also motivated by what pleases them, and that fact can be useful in teaching responsible behavior to boys and girls.  However, it is not sufficient to dole out gifts and prizes in an unplanned manner.  There are specific principles which must be followed if the law of reinforcement is to achieve its full potential.  Let's consider the elements of this technique in detailed application to children.

1.  Rewards must be granted quickly.  If the maximum effectiveness is to be obtained from a reward, it should be offered shortly after the desirable behavior has occurred.  Parents often make the mistake of offering long-range rewards to children, but their successes are few.  It is usually unfruitful to offer nine-year-old Joey a car when he is sixteen if he'll work hard in school during the next seven years. Second- and third-grade elementary children are often promised a trip to grandma's house next summer in exchange for good behavior throughout the year.  Their obedience is typically unaffected by this lure.  It is unsatisfactory to offer Mary Lou a new doll for Christmas if she'll keep her room straight in July.  Most children have neither the mental capacity nor the maturity to hold a long-range goal in mind day after day.  Time moves slowly for them; consequently, the reinforce-

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ment seems impossible to reach and uninteresting to contemplate.

For animals, a reward should be offered approximately two seconds after the behavior has occurred. A mouse will learn the turns in a maze much faster if the cheese is waiting at the end than he will when a five-second delay is imposed.  Although children can tolerate longer delays than animals, the power of a reward is weakened with time.

Immediate reinforcement has been utilized successfully in the treatment of childhood autism, a major disorder which resembles childhood schizophrenia.  The autistic child does not relate properly to his parents or any other people; he has no spoken language; he usually displays bizarre, uncontrollable behavior.  What causes this distressing disorder?  The evidence seems to point toward the existence of a biochemical malfunction in the autistic child's neural apparatus.  For whatever cause, autism is extremely resistant to treatment.

How can a therapist help a child who can neither talk nor relate to him?  All prior forms of treatment have been discouragingly ineffective, which led Dr. Ivar Lovaas and his colleagues to experiment many years ago with the use of rewards.  At the University of California at Los Angeles, autistic children were placed on a program designed to encourage speech.  At first, a bit of candy was placed into the child's mouth whenever he uttered a sound of any kind; his grunts, groans, and growls were rewarded similarly.  The next step was to reward him for more specific vowel sounds.  When an "o" sound was to be taught, candy was "paid" for all accidental noises in the proper direction.  As the child progressed, he was finally required to pronounce the names of certain objects or people to achieve the reinforcement.  Two-word phrases were then sought, followed by more complicated sentence structure.  Some language was taught to these unfortunate children by this simple procedure.

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The same technique has been employed simultaneously in teaching the autistic child to respond to the people around him.  He was placed in a small dark box which had one sliding wooden window.  The therapist sat on the outside of the box, facing the child who peered out the window.  As long as the child looked at the therapist, the window remained open.  However, when his mind wandered and he began gazing around, the panel fell, leaving him in the dark for a few seconds.  Although no child with severe autism has been successfully transformed into a normal individual, the use of reinforcement therapy did bring some of these patients to a state of civilized behavior.  The key to this success has been the immediate application of a pleasant consequence to desired behavior.

An understanding of how reinforcement works is not only useful in hospitals for autistic children.  It also helps explain the way behavior works at home, as we have seen.  For example, parents often complain about the irresponsibility of their youngsters, yet they fail to realize that some of this lack of industriousness has been learned.  Most human behavior is learned—both the desirable and the undesirable responses.  Children learn to laugh, play, run, and jump; they also learn to whine, bully, pout, fight, throw temper tantrums, or be tomboys.  The unseen teacher is reinforcement.  The child repeats the behavior which he considers to be successful.  A youngster may be cooperative and helpful because he enjoys the effect that behavior has on his parents; another will sulk and pout for the same reason.  When parents recognize characteristics which they dislike in their children, they should set about teaching more admirable traits by allowing good behavior to succeed and bad behavior to fail.

Described below are the steps of a program devised by Dr. Malcolm Williamson and myself when we were both serving on the attending staff at Children's Hospital of Los Angeles.

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The system is useful with boys and girls between four and eight years of age; it can be modified in accordance with the age and maturity of the youngster.

a.  The chart on the next page lists some responsibilities and behaviors which the parent may wish to instill.  These fourteen items constitute a much greater degree of cooperation and effort than most five-year-old children can display on a daily basis, but the proper use of rewards can make it seem more like fun than work.  Immediate reinforcement is the key; each evening, colored dots (preferably red) or stars should be placed by the behaviors that were done satisfactorily.  If dots are not available, the squares can be colored with a felt-tip pen; however, the child should be allowed to chalk up his own successes.

b.  Two pennies should be granted for every behavior done properly in a given day; if more than three items are missed in one day, no pennies should be given.

c.  Since a child can earn a maximum of twenty-eight cents a day, the parent has an excellent opportunity to teach him how to manage his money.  It is suggested that he be allowed to spend only sixty to eighty cents per week of these earnings.  Special trips to the store or toy shop can be planned.  The daily ice cream truck used to provide a handy source of reinforcement, although an increasing number of parents today are trying to limit the fat and sugar their children eat.  Of the remaining $1.16 to $1.36 (maximum), the child can be required to give twenty cents in the church offering or to some other charitable recipient; he should then save about thirty cents per week.  The balance can be accumulated for a long-range expenditure for something he wants or needs.

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"My Jobs" Chart  (chart cannot be reproduced here)

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d.  The list of behaviors to be rewarded does not remain static.  Once the child has gotten into the habit of hanging up his clothes, or feeding the puppy, or brushing his teeth, the parent should then substitute new responsibilities.  A new chart should be made each month, and Junior can make suggestions for his revised chart.

This system provides several side benefits, in addition to the main objective of teaching responsible behavior.  Through its use, for example, the child learns to count.  He is taught to give to worthy causes.  He begins to understand the concept of saving. He learns to restrict and control his emotional impulses.  And finally, he is taught the meaning of money and how to spend it wisely.  The advantages to his parents are equally impressive.  A father of four young children applied the technique and later told me that the noise level in his household had been reduced noticeably.

Note:  This plan is described almost exactly as it appeared in the original The New Dare to Discipline.  Since then, I've heard many success stories and a few complaints.  The most common negative comments have come from parents who said the task of keeping track of such a complex accounting system is burdensome every night.  It takes fifteen or twenty minutes to put up the stars and measure out the pennies.  If that is a concern in your family I would suggest that fewer goals be charted.  Selecting even five important behaviors and rewarding them with three to five cents each would do the job just as well.  Make the system work for you, modifying the concept as needed.  I assure you, however, it will work if properly applied.

Book: The New The New Dare to Discipline

By Dr. James Dobson

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