Tuesday, April 10, 2012

We Are Not Worms...

I remember watching a video about a worm in a psychology class in University. The worm was in a maze. Whenever it tried to turn to the right, it was poked with a paintbrush, and forced to turn left. After doing this several times, it "learned" to always turn left and to stop trying to turn right.

I was so impressed at the time that even a worm could learn through behaviour modification. I was even more impressed when I had the opportunity to do behaviour modification with rats. Wow - how great that behaviour could be explained by basic principles.

I think I really liked the simplicity of behaviour modification, and I went on to take other courses in it.

When I first became a parent, I was very conscious of the behaviour modification principles I was using. I was careful to reinforce only the behaviours I wanted, and provide consistent consequences for the behaviours that I did not want. I was proud when another parent commented on how incredibly consistent I was with my consequences.

Most parenting books promote the use of behaviour modification. Often, it is recommended to frequently reward behaviours, and to choose consequences such as time outs, or taking a toy away, for negative behaviours.

Here's the catch - I found that behaviour modification worked to a certain extent with my kids, but not as well as I had expected. Some behaviours could not change no matter how consistent I was. Rewarding behaviours seemed to increase their frequency temporarily, but not in the long term.

When I was reading Gordon Neufeld's book, Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers, he talked about a very interesting study. I put the reference for the article at the end of this post.

Basically, the researchers observed three groups of children playing with markers. In one group, the children were told they would receive a reward for playing with markers (expected reward). In another group, they were not told they would receive a reward, but they did receive one after playing with the markers. In the other group, they did not receive a reward.

The surprising thing is that when they put the children in the room with the markers again, the expected reward group did not want to play with the markers as much as the others. Wow - rewarding the behaviour actually decreased the childrens' interest in doing the behaviour again.

Apparently this is called "overjustification". Gordon Neufeld suggested it was due to counterwill - you may want to read my post on it: Counterwill: Why did I never see it this way before?

I think I mentioned that I recently took a course with an RDI-trained OT. The focus was on the relationship between the parent and child, with the parent being the guide and the child being the apprentice. This assumes that the natural way of learning is for the child to observe the parent, and to gradually start taking on more responsibilities. It assumes the child naturally wants to learn these things.

After learning about all this, I looked up on our refrigerator and saw our chore chart where I constantly have to prod my kids to complete household tasks, and then they are rewarded with their allowance. According to these theories, I have actually decreased their natural desire to participate in these activities by adding a financial reward. This explains why it has not been working well.

I have been trying a new approach. I have been practicing providing opportunities for my kids to help out, without expectations or rewards. It actually has been going surprisingly well. Much better than the chore chart in fact. I have been amazed at what my kids will volunteer to do when they do not feel they are being coerced. It turns out my daughter is actually capable of vacuuming the house, but will only do it when she feels she has control over the choice.

The other thing that Gordon Neufeld suggests is that the commonly-used "consequences" actually interfere in the parent-child attachment relationship. If your attachment to your child is your tool to help your child learn to behave, then it follows that time-out might not be helpful. Yelling and spanking would be especially unhelpful.

I have also lightened up on always providing a negative consequence for negative behaviour. If my kids are intentionally getting into trouble, there are still consequences. However, I have also learned that there are times when a hug does way more than a time out.

I am not saying that behaviour modification is not helpful. I still believe that it has a role. What I am trying to say is that we are so much more complex than worms. I think relationships and the natural instinct to follow people to whom you are attached plays a lot more of a role than I previously thought.

Lepper, Mark R.; Greene, David; Nisbett, Richard E. (1973). Undermining children's intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test of the "overjustification" hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 28(1), 129-137.


  1. Excellent post, Linda! I plan to share this w/ my husband - it may not be too late for us. ;)



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