The NO factor: Behaviorism and your child

© Sarah Lipoff 2011

The last couple of weeks have been a bit loud at my house. Our lovely daughter has finally figured out the talking thing, and everything is a bit out of control. I knew it was coming – even thought I was prepared for it – but when that high-pitched, “NOOOOOOOOOO” started coming out of the wee tot’s mouth, she successfully transported us to a place called Total Annoying Town.

While trying to understand this new and exciting toddler behavior, it reminded me of an article I previously wrote and thought I should re-visit it, do a bit of editing, and learn more about what is going on in my daughter’s developing brain. I figured all you mommies and daddies trying to understand why your child is standing in the middle of the grocery store aisle screaming, “NO!” at the Goldfish crackers because they aren’t the rainbow kind might be interested in what is happening in that itty-bitty developing brain, too.

*Be warned, the following contains statistics, quotes, and insight on how to define and direct behavior, but no miracle cure for the “NO” factor found in toddlers – and kids (and some adults)…

Let’s start by magically teleporting back to high school psychology and refreshing our knowledge of Behaviorism. Behaviorism is a learning theory that focuses on observable behaviors. It is split into two areas of conditioning, classic, and behavioral – or operant. Most are familiar with operant conditioning, which is where one learns through reward what behavior is desired. B.F. Skinner spent lots of time exploring operant conditioning through research with animals, which proved that behavior is a learned response. Classic conditioning is a natural reflex or response to stimuli, such as flinching in the shower when hearing a toilet flush (will it be a rush of cold or hot water?).

Skinner’s research determined the brain was not a part of conditioning, and learning was through environmental factors. All actions require a reaction, positive or negative, which modifies behavior. With basic behaviorism theories, it is thought that the individual is passive and behavior is molded through positive and negative reinforcement. This means that a child’s behavior can be changed and modified through reinforcement, but which type is best?

Positive or negative?

Yes, incentives do seem to reap positive rewards and many of us resort to offering goodies for desired behavior. If a child behaves properly, she is promised a new toy. When she loudly complains at the supermarket, she is offered a tasty-treat to stop screaming. This means the child is rewarded for both positive and negative behaviors, sending a confusing message. This results in a child learning through her behaviors that she will receive the same outcome (yahoo, candy!) no matter the behavior.

When a toddler tosses out that first “no” it is her way of exhibiting control over the situation and proving she has a mind of her own – and she’s going to use it. Some parents resort to punishment or shame-based tactics instead of understanding talking through the situation can lead to offering the child necessary language skills to close the gap, and bring a solution to the situation. Offer directions in a clear and direct manner, avoid entering into a back-and-forth battle, and offer comfort and support as needed when dealing with challenging situations.

And, it doesn’t always work.

Behaviorism has hit the mainstream with several television shows setting almost impossible examples of how children can and should behave with the proper attention. Alfie Kohn finds that behaviorism is as American as apple pie, applying techniques for a quick response without consideration for the future. According to Kohn, instead of tossing kids in time-out, spending time reasoning with children in a warm and compassionate manner offers better response resulting in well-adjusted and loving adults.

Consistent and realistic consequences are essential when dealing with behaviors, both positive and negative. Feedback, or consequences, are a large aspect of behaviorism. When feedback is given after a desired behavior, learning has been set in place. Selecting appropriate rewards is important so that they can be offered consistently. When a child works hard to perform in a positive way and is not rewarded as expected, her self-esteem drops and she is not motivated to continue the behavior. When negative behaviors are exhibited, instead of placing her in time-out, removing a reward is an option.

But, what is a “reward,” right?

As adults, we can work to model positive behaviors encouraging the same behavior from our children along with not offering incentives when unnecessary or overly praising. Our gut reaction is to say “good job” when our kid does something great. This raises the child’s psyche, but doesn’t offer necessary important incentive to continue the behavior. The child does not understand specifically what behavior caused the adult to praise her, causing disregard and the blanket phrase “good job” to be insignificant and not promoting continued positive behavior.

I actually enjoyed a fun debate on this topic on Fox News – you can watch it here (and giggle if you’d like).

When specific praise is provided – such as turning that “good job” into “I like the way you answered that question!” focusing the praise on growth, learning, and development, the child’s behavior is positively acknowledged and encouraged. It also gives the adult a chance to think about what actually excited them about the child’s behavior, making it a win-win on both ends. The child feels supported and motivated in a nurturing way, and the adult has identified the specific behavior they are proud of.

And that is the type of praise that you can offer easily and often.

Along with changing up that, “good job,” take into consideration how often you say no to those around you. No one likes being told no, especially a developing and excited-to-learn child. Finding new phrases to use when in a “NO” situation exhibits options to the child and understanding that when “no” is used, no really means no. By acknowledging what the child wants using simple language, stating the current facts (the store is out of rainbow Goldfish), and taking a moment to talk things through (and even offering a conciliatory hug), the child is able to develop language skills and better understand behaviors.

Are there going to be times the child will be given anything and everything possible to stop the noise? Yes. Is it always the right thing to do? Nope. Is it essential for keeping mom or dad sane? YES.

Parenting is at its best when done by parents the way they feel comfortable. Working through the sticky spots of life together with your child can help create strong bonds that last a lifetime.


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