“He only did that to get the ice cream…”


What did you just say?  What were the first 4 words you spoke?  “He only did it…”  AND? Another version of this is, “he is just manipulating the system to get the reward.”  It is often followed by something to the effect of “he should do it because I told him so” or “he should just do it because its important.” UGH.   

The last time I heard this, I was reminded of a recent time at my own house with our 3 year old.  He was one “sharing point” away from earning his reward (a mini ice cream cone…waaaayy worth it) when he VERY noticeably went over to our hobbling 17 month old, grabbed her hand gently and as he walked her very cutely to his room, looked back at us and said, “let’s go share my toys, little sister.  We smiled, said something to each other that started with “that little…,” waited a few moments and delivered that last sharing point.  

The motivation of that last sharing point created an opportunity for us to either take advantage of the fact the behavior occurred, or be wrapped up that he was being “manipulative” and ignore a behavior we were working so hard to achieve.

Here is the lesson. 

If we set things up correctly, we can take advantage of the fact your son is “taking advantage of the system.”  If you can set aside and control access to desired items and activities such as the computer, PlayStation, skateboard, or a mini ice cream cone and deliver them after he completes his chores and homework or uses nice words with his sister, then you are in fine shape.  We are all motivated by different things.  We all behave in ways that have benefitted us in the past.  Just because your son is (currently) motivated more by access to a computer game than by the satisfaction of a clean room or completed homework does not mean it is “manipulative” in a bad way.  The fact that he did it and that you reinforced it in a way that is meaningful to him is the important factor.  The natural “satisfaction” and “just because you should want to earn the A in Science” motivations will come later. 

Again, the important part is that the behavior occurs in the first place.  You cannot reinforce what does not occur.  We’ll worry about fading into more natural reinforcers later.

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