The expectation of reward for good behavior

A comment I frequently get when talking about rewarding behavior is, “won’t he just learn to expect some kind of reward for everything?” Another version of this is, “well, if I do that, then she won’t she always ask for something in return?”

My answer? NO, and it does not really matter at this point anyway. This is especially true if you are working on changing a problem behavior.

A personal story
One of the things we have worked on in our house is “accepting it,” which basically means, “don’t freak out if something does not go your way.”

So, to do that, we started praising and specifically rewarding when our kids “accept it.” Also, occasionally, we reward calm “acceptance” with what they wanted in the first place. For example, if we told our son to turn the computer off and he did so without doing the bouncy, whiny thing (or some version of protest), we would say, “dude…thank you for accepting it and closing the computer. You can have more time on the computer now that you accepted that.”

Fast forward to a few weeks ago when he accepted something that was a pretty big deal. I cannot remember exactly what it was, but I was happy how he accepted it. He turned to me and said,

“so, since I accepted it, can I keep playing it?”

There was also another time soon after that when he said,

“since I did good, can I have a treat?”

Am I worried about that becoming a pattern? Good gracious, no.

Do I think he will start manipulating the situation so he only does something if there is something “in it for him?” Nope. Does not cross my mind.

Do I sometimes give him the treat or let him keep playing? Sometimes. (We actually have a rule that you don’t get a reward if you ask for it…but that’s another story).

First things first…I am pretty happy when I have focused on teaching a certain behavior and it begins to occur more and more, even if I have to heap praise, high fives and some extra time with the computer on top of it. The more the behavior occurs, the less I will have to reward it. The behavior is occurring, at least, and I can fade out the rewards as time goes on.

Second, if your child says he will only do it if he gets a treat, that’s ok. Do not get into a back and forth with him about it. I would suggest waiting until he wants to do something or asks for something and then you say, “well, you need to ______, then you can have/do that.” Do not get cranked up about it…it really does not mean a whole lot at this point other than the fact he has caught on to the fact that he does something for you and it can benefit him in some way (not a bad lesson to learn anyway).

So, if you are somehow worried that your child will only behave because there is a piece of candy or extra time playing games at the end of the good behavior, worry not! They are kids. You can worry about “intrinsic motivation” or “doing it because they should” later.

Are rules meant to be broken?

Photo by JunCTionS via Flickr

Photo by JunCTionS via Flickr

I’m sitting in a plane trying to stretch my legs and figure out if there is any way these seats could be more uncomfortable and the flight attendant comes over the speaker, “Due to the turbulence, the captain has turned on the seatbelt sign. Please return to your seats and remain seated until the seatbelt sign is no longer illuminated.”

No kidding, within two minutes, three different people got up from their seats and bounced their way back to the bathroom. It was almost as if they waited for the opportunity when everyone else was going to be seated to go to the bathroom.

Didn’t you just hear the lady??? Its freakin’ dangerous to be walking around in the plane like this, and if you knock over my drink on me…Even if you aren’t moved by the fact that this plane is bouncing around like crazy and you might hurt yourself or, God forbid, someone else, it’s the darn rule!

Of course, being the lame rule-follower I tend to be in these situations, I look up to see the flight attendant immersed in Fifty Shades of something, not paying a bit of attention to the rule-breakers. Really? If it is not that big of a deal, why turn on the light anyway? Let us roam around and use the bathroom if you are not convinced enough there is actual danger that you will be willing to follow through.

Alright, so where is the behavior/parenting part of this? Continue reading

What is your child escaping?

photo by dadblunders via Flickr

photo by dadblunders via Flickr

The reason your kid does everything in his power to not clean his room is the same reason you do everything you can to not do the dishes. It’s true. So let’s think about “escape” or “avoidance” behavior and what to do about it. Continue reading

5 Lessons your mom taught you about parenting

Photo by Chris. P via Flickr

The lessons your parents taught you when you were young were meant to shape your behavior as you grew. Although they might not have intended these lessons to be advice for how to best parent your own kids, I think we should revisit those things your parents told you and listen now as parents and not children.

1. “If you dont have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”  Continue reading

“Zoom out” in times of distress


photo by alexindigo via Flickr

I have often thought parenting is like climbing a mountain: ups and downs, tricky turns, sometimes going down a little to go up and sometimes slowly navigating slippery passages. All of these trying times, however, come with incredible feelings of accomplishment at every “peak.” After listening to a recent interview with a famous author and mountain climber, I’m even more convinced.

Climbing mountains and “Zooming in” on the problem

Jim Collins, the coauthor of the book Great by Choice,  is a mountain climber. He talks about times when you get a not-so-great grip during a climb and things start looking bleak. He says climbers (ahem, ahem: parents) tend to “zoom in” on the problem, trying to find a way to get a better grasp; clinching and gripping even tighter to that bad hold. With each slight move of a finger or shift of weight in an effort to make that grip better, the problem gets worse and worse. Ultimately, if the climber can’t break out, he falls.

Undivided focus is given towards the weakening hold: the problem

Zooming in on the problem puts undue attention on the problem, rather than the solution. Teeth are mashed, knuckles are popping, and fingertips loose pressure. Bad goes to worse.

However, if the climber could simply zoom out instead of zoom in, he or she would notice the better foothold or another better grip position. Moving in any of these other directions immediately alleviates all the problems being encountered. However, if completely zoomed in on the problem, the solutions are not visible.

Are there times in your role as a parent you focus too much on the problem rather than the possible solutions or bigger picture?

I see this sometimes in a wide variety of situations where the parent gets so deep into trying to “follow through” or “make sure the child doesn’t get away with it,” that the parent is almost ensuring the behavior will escalate and cause a much bigger problem than it was in the beginning. I have heard parents say, “if he does not clean his room after I ask two or three times, I’ll go in there and MAKE him do it.” What does that mean? You are going to force it and create a bigger mess than the room ever was? ZOOM OUT, for crying out loud!

I have seen parents get so frustrated with making sure their kid does what they say, that they end up having WWIII when, if they would have gone about things differently, there would not be a problem in the first place. Adding punisher after punisher until something finally hits so hard the child submits. Physically engaging at the point of total frustration. Both parent and child typically leave this situation embarrassed and emotionally drained. I get it…it happens to all of us.

Zoom out!

Zooming out in these situations means stepping back and asking questions about why he is not cleaning his room and how you can make it more likely next time. It is about asking why she always dilly-dallies around in the morning instead of being ready on time and how you might could motivate her to move quicker and more independently in the future. It is about why YOU react so strongly in some situations and how YOU can better prepare for (or avoid) them in the future.

Put up notes around the house, put something on the fridge. Whatever it is you need to do to remind yourself to ZOOM OUT in times of distress or difficulty. Enlist your spouse to tell you to “zoom out” when things are getting tough. Look for other options. Don’t fall off the cliff because you wanted to make that one grip hold. Make it to the top because you found better solutions once you got into trouble.

Good Cop / Bad Cop — Terrible idea


Some parents try to “good cop/bad cop” to get their kids to do things they don’t want to do or to solve problems with behavior – Horrible idea. 

Lets talk about why:

I assume the idea of the good cop/bad cop originated in some precinct where there was one really nice and maybe overly flexible police officer, let’s call him Softy Sam and a partner of his who was a real jerk.  One day, they were trying to get something out of someone they arrested, we’ll call him Didn’t do it Don.  The bad cop spends hours yelling at, insulting and “breaking down” ol’ Don to no avail.  Probably due to his style and general demeanor, Bad cop Bill got frustrated and stormed out.  Softy Sam, after hearing this, went into the interview room, saddled up to Don, put his arm on the guy’s leg and says,

“I know how you feel, man.  I’ve been there before.  You get into a bad situation with one of your friends, you don’t feel right about it, but things go so fast you don’t have a chance to do or say anything and something really bad happens before you know it.  Then your scared and stuck…you know what I mean?” 

Don looks up through bloodshot eyes and nods his head.  Softy Sam says,”You wanna talk about it?”  Don asks for a cigarette and says “yeah.”

Genius, right?  Works on Law and Order all the time.  

Not for parents! (hear the CHA-CHUNG sound here)

Several things happen if you do this  

Parent splitting:  if this is something you do, you will not need name tags for who is the “good cop” and who is the “bad cop.”  The child will, at times of distress, need or desire orient towards the “good cop.”  The “bad cop” tells the kid to do something and it becomes more of a suggestion than a request.  Has this happened to you?

“Hey, buddy, I need you to clean up your room” 

“Mommy, daddy said I needed to clean my room…can I watch TV first?”

Whoops.  This becomes a cycle and happens more and more if you don’t watch out.

Definition of relationship: What are you really doing when you play the “bad cop,” always being the one to “draw the line in the sand?”  Do you know a “bad cop” at your office?  Do you want to hang out with him after work?  Nope.  Be careful your role as the “bad cop” does not become your role as a parent.   EEESSSHH.

Creation of master negotiators: If parents are taking different roles/sides, they are, by definition, not consistent with each other.  This creates opportunities when children learn the skill and art of negotiation by playing the game.  Be careful with this…it gets worse if you don’t watch out.

Leave the negotiating and the good cop/bad cop game to the guys who play police officers on TV.  

Be consistent with each other.  Always check with the other parent if you are unsure about something.  Talk about those decisions (outside the earshot of the children).  Don’t play against each other…even though it might feel good to be the “good cop” every now and then. 


Are you a tease?


Never thought you would get that question from me did you?  I’m not asking the question you think I’m asking. 

What I am asking is…Do you offer incentives, reinforcers, access to fun things as ways to get your child to do something you want them to do, then not follow through.  A lot of parents have this problem.  In the moment, it is so important for the child to do something that we bring out the big guns

“I tell you what, if you can make it through this Sunday school without insulting Sister Marguerite, we can get an ice cream cone on the way home.” 

The kid does it…what a star!  Not a peep during Sunday school and the good Sister actually wondered, “what go into your son today, he was a true gentleman.” 

Now you are rushed to get home to get the yard mowed before it rains and you put all your cash into the offering plate because you were still on a high from your son’s success…money well spent. 

“We’ll get your ice cream later, OK?” or worse yet, “we can get that ice cream later if you can help your mom for a bit with the baby.” 

Did you see what just happened?  Over time and experiences such as the one above those “teases” will stop working because your child will learn not to trust what you say.  YEP.  Why would they?  Remember, every interaction is an opportunity (good and bad) to teach your child something. 

What are you teaching here?   What is the more powerful consequence?  Making his friends laugh and cheer after calling out Sister Marguerite’s obesity problem to the class will surely outweigh the benefits of a “not really” offer for ice cream. 

Follow through, follow through, follow through.  Teach your child that when you say something, you mean it.  Teach them when you say there is ice cream, ice cream there will be (and soon).