Welcome back to Parenting Pearls. This is our recurring advice column designed to assist you in raising happy healthy successful children.   Last time we discussed how to get a child to repeat good behaviors with reinforcement.  Today, I want to examine how this same process can backfire on us. Let’s say my three year old is grabbing an electrical cord. I, of course, remove it from his hand because it is dangerous. He starts to cry, scream, flail. Full on temper tantrum ensues.  Now what?  

I could give it back. That would stop the tantrum. But it would reinforce his crying to get what he wants, and also risk electrocution. So I assume most of us would not take this option.   I could redirect him by giving him something safer to play with, like a stuffed animal. Or I could get really silly to distract him so he stops crying.  This seems like a much more reasonable approach. But if we follow a behavioral thought process, what are we training our child to do?  The child now has a toy or my attention, he is happy. Later he starts crying again and gets another toy. He soon realises if only at a subconscious level, that by crying he gets something good. 

I could punish him, by giving him a time out (the subject of a future article).  The problem with this kind of negative reinforcement, however, is that although the child is not getting a “good” result, he is still getting attention, which can motivate.  Bad attention is sometimes better than no attention. 

The best option would be to ignore his tantrum. By doing this, there is no attention given. Pretty quickly your child will figure out that his screaming is not getting him anything.  He will then try other techniques. “Maybe if I’m cute and snuggly, mom will give me attention,” your child thinks. When he picks a behavior you like, give him reinforcement and he’ll start choosing that behavior in the future. 

A Small Caveat About Extinction:

When you first remove reinforcement from a behavior, the behavior tends to escallate. The child just can’t understand why his crying is not working. It has before. “Maybe I’m not doing it with enough enthusiasm,” your child might wonder. Then the tantrums will get bigger and louder for a few days. Eventually, when even the exaggerated tantrums fail to succeed, the negative behavior will be abandoned and new, more positive behaviors will take its place.

Pearl:  Ignore temper tantrums

Homework: the next time your child has a tantrum, turn and walk away. Let them have it. Once they are finished and acting appropriately, then give them attention. Remember the behavior may get worse before it gets better.

Dr. Gettleman

Let’s start at the very beginning….

I recognizes how hard it is to be a parent, especially in this new Covid world. We appreciate the difficult challenge of having to wear so many hats: teacher, therapist, referee, judge, chef, housekeeper, accountant, entertainer, nurse, and of course Mother. Amongst all these responsibilities, you must also raise your  baby to become a happy, healthy, successful adult. 

The good news is, you don’t have to do this alone. I will post short articles to assist you in laying down a foundation to achieve this goal. Enjoy these “pearls” of wisdom and use them as the need arises to make parenting more enjoyable and successful.

Today I thought we’d start with the fundamental principle of behavioral management, also known as, reinforcement. Anything that causes a behavior to be repeated is called reinforcement. If you go to work, they pay you with money.  This is reinforcement.  If they stopped paying you, you probably would stop working. The more they pay you, the more likely it is that you will do as they ask.  Fairly simple, right?  How do we apply this to your kids?  What motivates them?  For most, especially for younger ones, attention is the best motivator. For example if you see your baby smile, you smile back and show your happiness.  She sees you are pleased, and smiles more. And the cycle continues.  

Today’s Pearl is:  Reinforce the behaviors you want to continue

Your homework is to “catch” your child doing something you like. Then I want you to give them positive feedback (AKA reinforcement).  The more you see them repeat that action, give them more encouragement. Let’s see if they start doing it more.

Keep on eye out for further columns l