Operant Conditioning and Parenting Techniques

How do operant conditioning and classical conditioning relate to parenting? What parenting techniques can we learn from the world of science and conditioning?

Classical Conditioning is a training tool used to create a connection between two stimuli.  It connects an artificial stimulus with a natural stimulus so that the artificial stimulus begins to create in the same response as the natural stimulus. 

When training a dog to go outside to potty, hang a bell on the door and ring it each time you take the dog out to potty.  The bell itself has no meaning.  When the dog begins to show that he wants to go out, take her nose and ring the bell.  Soon, he will begin ringing the bell to let you know he needed to go out and potty.  Training him to ring the bell, which means nothing in itself, in order to satisfy his need to potty allows him to communicate his need in a way that is approved by you and not in a manner you do not approve, such as scratching at that door.

Operant Conditioning is another training device in which the trainee is conditioned to make a connection between a behavior and a consequence.  A trainee connects the behavior with a consequence.  A dog is trained to sit and rewarded with a treat.  He begins to associate the treat with the behavior.  Sitting gets a treat.  The dog begins to sit on command.  A cat is squirted with a water bottle when he climbs a Christmas tree.  He begins to associate the undesirable water squirt with climbing the tree and stops climbing. 

The consequence can be positive or negative.  In this case, positive and negative are not terms that are qualitative meaning a good consequence or a bad one.  Positive is any consequence that is something added or started.  Negative means that something is taken away or ended.  Both can be perceived as either good or bad to the trainee.

We have punishers or reinforcers.  Punishers decrease a behavior, reinforces increase a behavior.  The goal is to get the trainee to decrease undesirable behaviors and increase desirable behaviors.  If you want to train a dog to do something, you want to reinforce a desirable behavior.  If the dog is doing something the trainer doesn't want, you want to decrease the behavior.  Often the term "punishment" is seen as a negative thing.  In a scientific context, however, a punishment is simply that which is used to decrease a behavior.

How can we apply these things to our parenting?  As we begin looking at the things our children do, we need to look at the behaviors we wish to see or to increase and reinforce those.  We want to look at behaviors we want to end or decrease and punish those.  These can be accomplished both by adding things to the child's environment and by removing things from the environment. 

Often in our desire to decrease a behavior, we unwittingly increase it by poor use of these methods.  For example:  When mom counts to three the child obeys after mom says "three".  This is not increasing the child's obedience to the parent.  It is decreasing it by teaching the child to obey the number "three", not the command.  In other words, the punishment is not being associated with the parents command, but rather with the number three.  This would be like training a dog not to sit when you say sit, but rather to sit after you count to three.  If you count to three every time you tell the dog to sit, the dog associates the number three with the desired behavior and not the actual command word "sit".

Understanding these principles of training helps parents to understand how to teach and train children.  These principles can be as effective for the parent/child relationship as it is for the owner/pet relationship.

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Judith Barton
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Posted on May 27, 2010