Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Behavior >>> Behaviorism

Guilt is such a great thing. It has the power to transform reality. You know you're not the only one to have made whatever egregious mistake you've made--but guilt makes you the unique malefactor!

So. I got mad when I was pushed to the edge by my toddler, who yelled "No!" to whatever simple request I made ("Come on, honey, it's eleven at night! Time to sleep"), or--my favorite--who would follow me brandishing a book, after I'd read endless numbers of books endlessly but had to take a break to, say, make a meal for the famished. "Read!" he would demand in increasingly loud tones. If I persisted in my efforts to feed my family, a now-sobbing three-year-old would then hurl the book at my knees.

(When he was much younger and stayed quiet in the Baby Bjorn only so long as I was moving, moving, down the sidewalks of Brooklyn--a shrill wail would erupt the second I put my hand on the doorknob of a shop or coffee bar--I imagined the ideal gift for him: a miniature buggy whip, the better to drive his mother on.)

I became a frustrated, tired old yeller myself. I got so angry when he spilled a cup of juice (I mean, the sixth cup of juice that day, after having pitched a fit about being too old for sippy cups and "Yes, I am too going to take it in the living room") or refused to pick up his toys. By god, I was becoming the frightening mother I remember shrieking at the childish me. And none of this was making me feel good. And none of it was working either.

It came very late in the game, the realization that I abjured this kind of punitive, aversive, and, let's face it, out-of-control behavior toward my dogs, but I practiced it freely with my child. I certainly knew how terrible it looked when I saw it: watching people screaming at their dogs, for no good reason (or for bad: they had neglected to train, but expected compliance all the same), in the park had made me feel sure I was really watching a thinly veiled home movie of their own treatment as children by their parents. And when I saw other mothers berating or belittling their children in public, it made my stomach churn.

What was I doing? It was crazy, and I only hoped I hadn't fucked up my child for good, made him insecure, or self-hating, or fearful.

I was certain I had. But a program of positive reinforcement, begun now, might wipe away the memory of some of that embarrassing and damaging stuff. Once again, the aforementioned Jolanta, exegete and guide to the world of being humane, informed me that indeed, people used clicker training on their children, only they might seek to hide it a bit, because the rest of the world seems to find it hard to think of a human as just another mammal. Hmmm. Strange. She told me of an online list called Clickakid.

Turns out I was hardly unique. There were lots of people out there who marched around with treat bags and clickers, giving their dogs the opportunity to learn advantageous behaviors in order to supplant the troublesome ones, all with nary a jerk or a yell. But they were still doing it the old-fashioned way with their kids, until one day the bolt of lightning arrived.

So, some days I put away the bait bag filled with cubed turkey roll, and I pocketed a bag of M&Ms. We had a bad situation out there on the tee-ball field: tantrums, unwillingness to listen or work or try, whining that he wanted to quit. But after making a list of goals together, my son and I headed out for the second game. Any effort he made in the direction of one of his goals got a thumbs-up--a visual Click!--and I ran out as soon as practical to deliver a reinforcer in the form of a sweet. I could see the other parents looking at me: What the hell is she--the candy pusher? Call child protective services!

The day of the third game, I couldn't find my son when it was time to leave. But he was way ahead of me, out at the end of the drive, having opened the gate so we could drive. "Mommy, I don't want to be late for tee-ball!"

Now if only someone would clicker train me.


Julie said...

Your post inspired me to do a quick search on intermittent reinforcement. I came up with this interesting tidbit on wiki that mentions negative (nagging) vs. positive reinforcement and children:

The interesting thing that Skinner discovered about intermittent reinforcement and maybe one of Skinner's most important discoveries was that behavior that is reinforced intermittently is much more difficult to extinguish than behavior that is reinforced continuously. "This is why many of our student's undesirable behaviors are so difficult to stop. We might be able to resist a child's nagging most of the time, but if we yield every once in a while, the child will persist with it." (Crain, 187) Therefore, when we begin to teach a desired behavior it is best to begin with continuous reinforcement, but if you wish to make a desired behavior last it is best to switch to an intermittent schedule of reinforcement.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Julie, thanks for that reminder; you're absolutely correct. The fact that an intermittently reinforced behavior becomes strongest is why the first rule of good parenting as well as good animal training has always been "Consistency." I find it interesting that this has been the case well before Skinner ever codified it, and it is the case to people who have no use for science. It's because it's abundantly evident.
Needless to say, consistency with children is one of the hardest behaviors to achieve, at least for me. There's all that personal history and unconscious stuff intruding . . .
Which might bring us also to the notion of "the poisoned cue": Jesus Rosales-Ruiz said (at ClickerExpo) that one's name is often the most poisoned cue of all (one that has been followed by both reinforcement and punishment). He said that when he heard his father call out, "Jesus . . . " he felt a tinge of fearful anticipation. Sometimes when his father called his name, something nice happened. And at other times . . .