My three-year-old and I cruised down the cracker aisle, stopping only to grab a box of Triscuits.
This may sound like no big deal. Except that at our grocery store, the cracker aisle is also the toy department. It’s lined with so many things kids love—cars, dinosaurs, mermaids, squishy balls, Play-Doh, bubbles…
In the past, I would skip this aisle and consider myself brilliant for avoiding a problematic situation. No questions, no comments, no begging, no whining, and no bitter tears.
Of course that also meant no crackers or raisins. (Why are raisins on the cracker aisle anyway?)
But now we can walk right down the aisle, barely even acknowledging the toys. We don’t argue. There’s no pestering. We just keep moving. (It’s almost this lovely!)
What’s the secret?
Let me tell you. Because it’s something that might just change your life, too.
I Use a Reinforcer to Handle Behavior Problems
In the first two articles of this series on child behavior, we discussed how to analyze the ABCs of child behavior and react to the function of a behavior (FOB).
Now we’re ready to start shaping the kinds of behaviors we expect from our children.
Remember that the “C” in ABC stands for “consequence” of the behavior. Let’s introduce a new term: Reinforcer.
Any consequence that encourages a behavior to continue is called a reinforcer.
Every behavior a person continues to engage in (positive or negative) is reinforced somehow. For example, an adult who exercises regularly may be reinforced by feeling healthy and strong, or by losing weight.
When I collapse in front of the TV after getting the kids to bed, I am reinforced by relaxation and escape. If I wake up 15 minutes early, that self-discipline is reinforced by an extra cup of coffee in silence, or not having to race through the morning routine.
These are examples of natural reinforcers, and they are powerful for children, too.
Are Behavior Reinforcers Working For or Against You?
Manners are among the most naturally-reinforced of all child behaviors.
A little kid uses great manners, and adults within a mile radius swoon. We can’t grant their mannered-requests fast enough.
It’s terrific when appropriate behaviors are naturally reinforced. I want to tell you how to use simple systems to maximize the effect of natural reinforcement and shape positive behaviors.
But first it’s important to understand that reinforcement can go wrong, too.
Imagine this, little Jared is having a tantrum in the grocery store. His mother, Sarah, grabs his favorite treat from the shelf, tears it open, and shoves it in his mouth to calm the situation and finish the shopping.
Tantrum reinforced. Think it will ever happen again?
Or how about this one: Your kids beg and pester you for drive-thru ice cream while out running errands.You say “no” the first 10 times, but you’re all getting hot and hungry, and ice cream would taste good…
When you eventually break down and say “yes,” everyone is thrilled and it almost seems like it was your idea. But begging and pestering have definitely been reinforced.
Am I saying these are the most horrible examples of parenting? No way. Not by a long shot.
What I’m saying is we have to be aware of how our actions reinforce our kids’ behaviors. Especially if you’re dealing with particularly troublesome behavior problems.
We all have blind spots where our kids are concerned. So it’s important to look hard and objectively at which behaviors we’re reinforcing, and how.
As parents, we point out the natural reinforcers we consider great teachable moments (“See? Your hard work really paid off!”). Yet when we inadvertently reinforce behavior problems, we often don’t notice, or we chalk it up to surviving another day as a parent.
But we can do better than just survive.
What To Do When Natural Reinforcers Aren’t Working for You
Now it’s time to talk about incentives.
Incentives are reinforcers we use intentionally to ensure that encouragement for positive behavior is potent and memorable.
Incentives are what we offer to get people to do what we want them to. Sometimes it’s called external reinforcement.
Some people also may call it a bribe. But that’s a loaded word, and something I’ll address in a future post.
For now, let’s just assume there’s a behavior problem your kid has that you’re willing to do just about anything to change. Incentives motivate the change. I use them all the time, for big or small things.
My daughter, for instance, knows she can watch TV while I’m fixing dinner if she asks for it appropriately and doesn’t whine. You may want to offer screen time for finishing homework, or playing nicely with a sibling for an hour.
In a terrific Freakonomics podcast on the topic, John List, an economist at the University of Chicago, explained it perfectly. He said incentives work to change behavior “when the recipient of the message is not a demander of the information.”
In other words: When your kid doesn’t care about changing a behavior problem, incentives can make him care.
Social Reinforcers vs. Tangible Incentives – How to Choose
As a preschool special education teacher, I did a lot of potty training.
The kids who needed training weren’t intrinsically motivated to use the potty. (If they had been, they wouldn’t have needed me.) But they were motivated by other things.
Candies? Computer time? Stickers? YOU BET.
The point is, if the behavior is more important to you than it is to your kid, you may want to offer an incentive.
Don’t worry, you won’t have to use the incentive forever. Our goal is for kids to make good choices with little more than a nod or a thumbs-up from us.
We don’t want to be tossing stickers at them until they’re in high school for washing their own dirty clothes (But I know a few parents who would, if it worked!).
Behavior reinforcement works as a bridge to independence, which is self-reinforcing. It’s like training wheels.
So let’s talk more specifically about when and how to use your two reinforcement options.
- Social Reinforcers include smiles, hugs, tickles and high-fives. Use these freely and without guilt.
- Tangible Incentives are the big guns. Pull these out when:
- Social reinforcement isn’t cutting it. (i.e. Your kid doesn’t give a crap what you think.)
- You need a behavior to change swiftly and permanently. (e.g. Learning to dress herself, hitting, potty training before a new baby comes, etc.)
- You want to maintain a behavior you LOVE. (e.g. Nice manners, parking lot safety, etc.)
So what makes an effective tangible incentive? Good question.
5 Must-Haves of a Good Behavior Incentive
Choosing the right tangible incentive is critically important to changing behavior. Good incentives are:
It’s gotta be something they WANT. Something they’d do anything to have.
For some kids, a few M&M’s are the pinnacle of joy. Others may scoff at candy-covered chocolate. You have to find their currency, and deal in it!
The incentive also needs to match the frequency with which you hope to deliver reinforcement. Don’t offer a toy for every pee-pee in the potty unless you have way more money and space than sense.
If social reinforcement is enough for your kid, awesome. Only do that. But it probably won’t work for everything.
Once I choose an incentive, kids can ONLY lay their precious little grubby hands on this item, if they’ve engaged in the EXACT behavior we’ve both agreed upon.
Here’s a hint: Don’t offer TV as an incentive for following directions all day, if you rely on that 30-minute distraction to get dinner on the table. You don’t want to end up punishing yourself!
Also, if you use M&M’s for incentives, your kid can’t come home from grandma’s with a bag and chow down.
I’m such a meanie that if I happened to be in the throes of toilet training during Halloween, I would confiscate all the candy and dole it out only when pee-pee or poop hits the toilet water. (I mean, really, enough is enough with all this special-occasion candy anyway, right?)
The fact that they’re excited about the holiday makes the incentive even more potent!
Only give as much as you have to.
I’m continually amazed by what a little kid will do for one jelly bean or a tiny sticker.
Of course, it’s also our job to look after their health. I’m very mindful of when I rely on sugar, which is also why I take a very measured approach to doling out incentives. I can live with a few jelly beans each day.
But find what works with your values. If it doesn’t feel right for your family, don’t use it!
The incentive has to be within your means to stock as long as needed.
Whatever you choose, make sure you’ve got plenty of it and that you can get more, if needed.
This is why I like tiny candies for reinforcing frequently occurring behaviors like toilet training or cleaning up toys. A pocketful of M&Ms is no burden to keep up with. (Just be careful when you’re doing laundry…)
Incentives should be a bridge to good behavior, not a permanent fact of life. They’re training wheels.
Try to start it with the end in mind. Once the behavior is solid and integrated, back off to occasionally reinforcing, then eliminate the incentive when the skill becomes part of who your child is.
Depending on the behavior and the kid, this could take from 2 days to 3 weeks. You’ll both feel it when the skill is integrated. Taper off thoughtfully, so you’re not punishing them for learning a new skill!
Here’s THE MOST IMPORTANT RULE about incentives: If your kid asks for it, he or she NEVER gets it. You have to maintain the control.
This may sound harsh, but trust me, you don’t want to hand over the keys to this car. The next thing you know it’s “I put my books on the shelf. Do I get an M&M? I wiped my own bottom, do I get an M&M now? I shared my toys, do I get an M&M.” You catch my drift? Don’t let this become your life.
All These Things in Just the Right Measure
We don’t use a rocket launcher to kill a roach.
Neither do we want to choose a reinforcer that’s out of scale. So think about the severity and intensity of the behavior problem. Is it safety-related? Is there a reason it needs to change quickly? Or is it way out of bounds for your family values?
For example, I’m always amused when the topic of a kid discovering his own anus comes up. Some parents are, like, “eh…as long as it’s in the bathtub. Whaddya gonna do?” and some just cannot with that. If you’re in the latter camp, you might want to offer an incentive.
Toilet training a toddler before the new baby arrives? Definitely pull out the rocket launcher!
Here are some reinforcers that may work for you:
- Smiles, hugs, high-fives, tickles—a.k.a. LOVE (THE BEST!)
- Behavior-specific praise (“You picked up every lego! Great work!”)
- Stickers, temporary tattoos
- Stamps, or draw a star on the hand with a marker (cheap, easy and remarkably effective)
- Privileges (e.g. screen time, messy fun activity)
- Time with you, playing a special game or activity
- Meal out at a favorite restaurant
- Trip to favorite park or museum
- Impromptu dance party
- Tokens on a chart
- Access to a beloved toy
- Selections from a prize box
The Wrap-Up on Reinforcers
The gold standard of behavior reinforcers is positive social feedback.
By giving love, connection and approval, I hope it will translate into an organic, intrinsic motivation. I hope to communicate to my kid: “Yes, this is how we behave, because we are engaged members of a functional society.”
Incentives must be used thoughtfully and deliberately, so that we raise people with compassion, drive and purpose. After all, we aren’t training dogs here. (But it’s similar!)
We fade incentives as quickly as possible, so we don’t raise entitled people who are always looking for the carrot at the end of the stick. We want the new habit—the new behavior—to become a learned skill that provides its own natural reinforcement.
So now you know my secret to coasting down aisle six. Two jellybeans delivered upon completion of a pester-free grocery trip is all it took.
Yep, just two. My kid loves them that much.
Even as a health-nut parent, I think that’s a small price to pay. What’s yours?
Can you use those jellybeans to call off a tantrum? Find out in my next article about tantrum wrangling!
And if you found this article useful, please share it with other parents.
About the Author
Lisa King is the co-founder of Boss Parent. She also provides parents around the world with child behavior consulting.