One of the best explanations for children’s behavioral issues is the concept of reinforcement. All of us have heard about the effects of positive reinforcement or “reward.” We have heard that one of the ways to get children to obey is to give them an immediate reward for specific behaviors. In the opposite way, people think that the way to change or eliminate a behavior is to give a negative reinforcement or a punishment.
The one thing that parents don’t often consider is something we call the “candy aisle phenomenon.” For psychologists, this is the type of reinforcement that is most important. Here is how it works. A child is in the candy aisle and asks his/her mother for a piece of candy. Mom says, “no.” In fact, Mom says “no” on every one of the next 5 times that her child asks. So far, so good. Unfortunately, the next time the child asks, the mother gives in. The child has learned to keep up with the questioning for a longer time. This is what we call “intermittent reinforcement.” The behavior in question is reinforced or rewarded sometimes, but sometimes it is not. What happens is that you child has learned to keep trying! After this type of reinforcement, the behavior is very difficult to change. In fact, it is the type of response that is the strongest in prolonging the behavior.
Many parents tell me that they don’t use this type of reinforcement, that it is not a problem for them. What I think happens is that parents don’t notice how frequently they engage in this type of reinforcement. In public, it is often easier to give in rather than have your child melt down, right in the middle of the candy aisle. And, as you have noticed, children do have the capacity to wear you down, even with the best of intentions!
What should a parent do? First, be careful when you tell a child “no.” You must be really willing to enforce it. If you are not sure, then don’t give a response. This is true of situations that involve both major and minor issues. It is true of items in the candy aisle, of promises to go somewhere (“No, I will not take you to Target”), or of possibilities of major purchases. “No” needs to mean “No.”
So, what if you have told your child “No” but then find out the situation has changed. Can you change your mind? Of course. But, (and this is an important “but,”) you change your mind because YOU choose to, not because he/she has relentlessly campaigned for it. This may sound like a minor distinction, but it really isn’t. It is quite important. It avoids the intermittent reinforcement (of his/her nagging behavior) and that is key!