Thursday, August 4, 2011

Mama Bean is all Reinforcement-ed out

My Intro to Psychology course taught me that Reinforcement is the way a person's reaction to a behaviour encourages repetition of that behaviour - it reinforces continuation of the behaviour. Basically, we all like to get a reaction. And when we do, it encourages us to keep doing That Thing That Got The Reaction.

(For example, when I blog, and you write a comment, I like getting that reaction. So I keep blogging! Now hopefully, when you comment, and I keep blogging, you like that reaction, so you keep commenting. Reinforcement can be Reciprocal! W00t :P)

There are different flavours of Reinforcement, Positive and Negative. Positive Reinforcement is when we react to things we like, to encourage continued performance of things we like. (See above re: blogging and comments.) Negative Reinforcement is when we react to things we don't like, which encourages performance of things we don't like, and that's why it's Negative and Bad.

And so Behaviourism 101 tells us: react to things you like to encourage things you like (Do Positive Reinforcement) and don't react to things you don't like, so you won't encourage things you don't like (Don't Do Negative Reinforcement.)

Reinforcement has turned this momma upside down! It's this weird parenting reinforcement paradox around here, and it makes me want to scream, except I can't because that would probably negatively reinforce something-or-other-idontevenknowwhat!

I cannot be the only parent going through this.

On any given day, I am going out of my mind with excitement for things that, in the Real World of Adult Interactions are normal and natural and nothing to get excited about. I'm going cuckoo for Pleases and Thank-yous. I'm going gaga for Sharing and Not Hitting. I'm jumping up and down and all around for Listening to My Words and Using Your Words. I am cuckooing and gagaing and jumping up and down because I want to Positively Reinforce all these lovely behaviours from my Bean. And it's become so ingrained in everything I do, I excitedly positively reinforce things from Sprout, who understands few motivations more complicated than, say, Hungry and Tired. So I'm grinning and mugging for Good Nursing or Sitting Quietly While Mom Makes Dinner.

And on the flip side, I am quietly and carefully having internal fits over things that, in the Real World of Adult Interactions are not normal or natural and are forsure something to get excited about. I'm calmly providing food to a mouth that Spits it out or Throws it on the floor. I'm placidly wiping poop while legs Continually Kick Me. I'm oh-so-gently carrying the Cranky and the Crying and Won't Go to Sleep up to his bed to sleep anyway. Without reacting. Because I don't want to reinforce these less-than-lovely behaviours. And again, it extends to Sprout, so that I suppress my reaction to anything unpleasant, like the poop explosions or the fussypants or the spitting up down the back of my nice shirt that I just changed into for going to work, even though she has less than zero concept of what Reinforcement is even about.

It's like living backwards, amiright?

This is the kind of thing that makes me feel like I gave up half my brain when I gave birth. Sometimes I find cynical thoughts running through my head, "I have a university degree. I have a doctorate! People rely on me to make life-changing decisions about their health! Why am I dancing like a clown because he ate two more bites of green beans than he ate yesterday? Why am I crowing in victory over unintelligible "words"? Why for the love of Pete am I pantomiming for this tiny tiny human tyrant?!"

Oh right. Because I gave up half my brain and gained a couple extra pounds of Heart-bursting Love. /sigh.

Anyway, it's not that it's so so infuriating, more like a disembodied feeling at the end of some days, when I feel like I actually have not Been Myself, because instead I've been participating in this parenting paradox of Reinforcement Win. And I know it's all worth it in the end, that eventually they will do the Pleases and Thank-yous and Sharing without needing a Cheering Section. And they will learn to self-regulate negative behaviours, too. And by then we'll be trying to cheer them on in more sincere ways and they'll be adolescents who no longer care about our opinion lol. Not to mention, by that point, solving negative behaviours will be so much more complicated than simply quietly ignoring them ha!

Oi. Parenting. Please tell me about the silly things you go crazy about to positively reinforce - or, even better, tell me what you've been trying to ignore to avoid negatively reinforcing it.


  1. A. has been screaming lately for fun, just to get a reaction. So of course, I try to NOT react so as to not encourage her to continue. What I really want to do at times is yell at her to shut the hell up because my ears can't handle her banshee-like trills. And the Baby Whisperer book for toddlers tells you to remain neutral and remove your child from a situation if you don't like their behaviour. Which is nearly impossible sometimes because all I want to do is buy milk. So trying to act like having to drag my screaming child out of the grocery store mid-trip is no big deal goes against every natural fiber of my being. I want to hold her under my arm like a football, march out of the store, toss her in her carseat and tell her what I really think. But this whole non-reaction garbage is so frustrating because I feel like all I do some days is suppress rage. Which of course ends up having a negative efffect because finally I just explode and have an even bigger reaction than I would have had if I had just allowed several smaller reactions. Sigh. And in the end, it really doesn't feel like it makes a difference either way.

  2. Okay, as resident psych person, I have to do something super irritating here. I have to correct you. TECHNICALLY Positive reinforcement is not when you say Yay, it's when you ADD something. This can be a positive thing OR a negative thing. You can add a reward, or a punishment to either encourage or discourage a behavior. Negative reinforcement is when you Take Something Away. Again, this can be positive (you passed your test, so no having to do chores tonight!) or negative (No TV for a Week!).

    Perhaps what you're finding so irritating is that you feel like you don't get to react to anything negative, lest you accidentally provide reinforcement (and that's actually a really good strategy, since with kids it can be hard to predict what will actually BE reinforcing- some kids find getting yelled at reinforcing). But yeah, you can reinforce with giving candy, or giving a hug, or a smile, or a nice positive comment, or jumping around like a maniac, or letting them go naked or stopping nagging, or whatever. Whatever works for the kid in question. You can also punish, using again, a whole spectrum of behaviors, including both negative and positive reinforcemennt (grounding versus spankings or lectures).

    According to the research the best thing you can be for your kids is authentically you, since the authentic you is a real person, with real feelings, which they need to learn to deal with, and since the authentic you loves them unconditionally, which they also need.

    The only to really super avoid reinforcing is what's called an extinction burst. This is when your kid learns that if he screams in the grocery store, you give him what you want, and you learn that he's learned that. What happens then is you stop giving him what he wants (Extinction), and he starts screaming harder and longer and crazier than ever because It's Always Worked Before, I just must not be doing it Enough (The Extinction Burst). In this situation, the trick is to still not give in, even though the situation is totally unlivable. Because then you've just reinforced even Worse behavior and undone all the good of not reinforcing before.

    Okay, so that's everything I have to say about behaviorism. And here's my totally unsolicited parenting advice: Kids need sane and loving parents. If they have that, they're sufficiently resilient to deal with pretty much everything else. If they don't learn to behave properly from you, every other person they interact with is going to teach them too. Because when you're rude, you get social consequences ranging from almost invisible body language to full on shunning. The vast majority of people learn this stuff eventually, even if mom didn't have the wherewithal to be a full-time cheerleader. So be gentle with yourself.

  3. i say hey, don't forget the flip side of reinforcement: punishment! It sure does have a strong effect on B when he gets a strong "NO!" + stern reminder (usually, "DO NOT HIT!") or has his beloved frog taken away. Sometimes it's necessary to my parenting sanity to exert my power. My mantra lately has been "my two-year-old does not run me... my two-year-old does not run me..." Just my thoughts... from someone who only has one little one to deal with!