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Premack Principle

Parents often tell me that they don’t know what rewards to use for their children’s behaviour, or for that matter, what consequences to use. A large part of that problem is that children in today’s society have access to so much in the way of leisure activities – it’s difficult to find things that they will find rewarding. The Premack Principle comes from the Behaviour Modification literature. It states that “if a high-frequency behaviour is made contingent upon a low-frequency behaviour, that low-frequency behaviour will increase in frequency”. Or in other words, if there is a behaviour that children do a lot, change the rules so they can only do that if they first do something they don’t do very much, and then that second behaviour will occur more frequently. Some examples?

Homework (low-frequency behaviour) has to be done before television is watched (high-frequency behaviour), in order to increase homework behaviour.

Cleaning the bedroom has to be done before facebooking friends.

Having a meal with the family is necessary before going out with friends.

The high-frequency behaviour isn’t necessarily an undesirable behaviour – but it is one that the child would choose to do in preference to others.

The Premack Principle relies on the fact that people, including children, will be willing to do something they don’t really want to do, if that means they are able to do something that they really want to do. It does rely on parents being able to exercise control over some aspects of their children’s lives. That is often the challenge for parents – taking back control of the computer, television, or i-pods – or not allowing children to regard freedom as their right.

The difference in “frequency” doesn’t need to be large, so spend some time observing your child’s behaviour and then see if you can get them doing those activities they manage not to do if they can.

Do Parenting Groups Work?

Yes, Parenting Groups can work. Any reputable group will impart useful information about parenting and if applied by parents that information will help. However the reasons that parenting groups might not work in a given case are numerous, and they have nothing to do with the quality of the parenting group. Parenting groups work when the primary or only problem is a lack of parenting skill. Unfortunately there are often other problems present that are an obstacle to parents being able to parent effectively. If those problems are not addressed then learning new parenting skills will be of limited benefit because those same obstacles will be present. What are these obstacles? The more common ones follow:

 adult relationship conflict – if there is conflict between the parents in the home, whether that conflict is openly acted out or hidden and not dealt with, the conflict will get in the way of the parents co-operating and parenting effectively together. The same can be said if parents are separated.

 adult mental health or emotional problems – if a parent is depressed, anxious, has anger problems, or has difficulties coping with stress, those problems need to be addressed before parenting should be regarded as the primary problem.

 alcohol and drug abuse – similarly to adult emotional problems, if a parent abuses substances they will be very unlikely to benefit from parenting education.

 attachment difficulties – sometimes the problems with a child’s behaviour cannot be resolved with more effective management. The problems could be due to a relationship problem between the parent and child. That relationship problem might have its origins in the child’s early months of life if the parent was for some reason unable to form a good attachment with the child. That requires different therapy than parenting skills.

 stress –  sometimes the circumstances in which families live are stressful. It could be a lack of social support, financial or employment difficulties, or housing or overcrowding. These more practical problems need resolution before parenting education will help.

 child psychological problems – of particular significance here are the more pervasive developmental problems such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Autistic Spectrum Disorders. Major Mood or Anxiety problems can also be present in children and need to be addressed rather than a focus just on parenting.

 inadequate motivation – parents enter parenting groups with varying degrees of motivation. Sometimes they do so having been coerced or persuaded or even compelled to attend. Unless parents genuinely want to improve their parenting and make real efforts to put the new ideas into practice, they will be unlikely to benefit from the group.

Rewarding and Punishing Children’s Behaviour

Rewarding and Punishing children’s behaviour is not particularly “pc”. I think there are primarily two reasons for that. Firstly, there has been a lot of focus on “children’s rights” in recent years. I think this has mistakenly been interpreted by some as meaning that adults don’t have the right to influence children by manipulating the consequences of their behaviour. I disagree. Children’s rights should mean that children are entitled to the same human rights as adults, in an age-appropriate manner, and that all children are entitled to basic human rights involving safety, protection, education, health etc. They actually have the right to be cared for by adults who love them enough that they do influence them. Secondly, both rewards and punishments are often misunderstood. Parents often apologise to me for “bribing” their child with rewards. A “bribe” is the “offer of an inducement to commit an immoral act”. The reason that bribery is wrong is that it is an attempt to influence someone to behave badly. Rewards from parents are provided to a child after the child has behaved well. They are totally different. Punishment is often assumed to mean “physical” acts such as smacking, whereas punishment can take many forms. It is also thought by many parents that they should only need to reward behaviour, that it is better to reward than to punish, and that punishment is wrong because it doesn’t teach the child what to do, only what not to do.

 My thoughts are that rewarding and punishing children’s behaviour is unavoidable, and they work best when they are used in tandem – rewarding acceptable or appropriate behaviour and punishing unacceptable or inappropriate behaviour. Let me explain both of these ideas.

The technical term for rewarding behaviour is “reinforcement”. Punishment is the technical term. They have specific meanings that come from behaviour modification. Reinforcement is the strengthening of behaviour (increasing its frequency, making it more likely to occur in the future) and punishment is the weakening of behaviour (decreasing its frequency, making it less likely to occur in the future). Both reinforcements and punishments are provided after the behaviour has occurred. A really important point is that we only know that something is a reward or a punisher when we know the effect it has on the behaviour. So a sweet is not a reward unless it increases the frequency of the behaviour it follows. A smack on the hand is only a punisher if it decreases the frequency. A common mistake that parents make is to assume that an act or an object inherently has reinforcing or punishing qualities and to not determine that it does for their child.

So why is rewarding or punishing behaviour inevitable? Well, all behaviour has consequences. It is always followed by something, even if that something is “nothing”! That’s right – ignoring behaviour can either reward it or punish it. Similarly, giving a child attention following behaviour can either reward or punish it. It’s important to determine which is happening. Anything a parent does – a frown, a smile, a hug, a reprimand, a “look” – is likely to be a reinforcer or a punisher.

 Whenever a child behaves, he or she has the option of behaving “appropriately” or “inappropriately”. Parents in turn need to have at their disposal a range of consequences, both reinforcers and punishers. The most effective management occurs when an appropriate behaviour is rewarded and an inappropriate behaviour is punished. That gives parents double the chance to influence their child. Some examples might help:

  •  Children who watch television without fighting (appropriate behaviour) can keep watching television (reward) but if they fight (inappropriate behaviour) the television is turned off (punishment),
  •  Children who eat their dinner or use good manners can have dessert, but if they don’t eat their dinner or don’t use their manners they can’t,
  •  Children who do their chores receive a star/token/sticker, and if they don’t do their chores they don’t receive one and they miss out on television until they complete them,
  •  Children who get ready for bed co-operatively can read or have a story for an extra ten minutes. Children who are unco-operative get no story or go to bed ten minutes early that night or the next night.

The Three L’s of Parenting

Forget the three R’s, the three most important things in a child’s development are the three L’s – Love, Limits, and Liberty. Regardless of age, children’s needs can be understood in terms of the three L’s. What do they each mean?

Love – unconditional positive acceptance, children knowing that they are the most important people in the world to their parents, paying attention, being present, listening, feeding, clothing, housing – all of that is love.

Limits – providing boundaries, routine and structure, helping children feel safe in the knowledge that there are rules that will be enforced.

Liberty – enabling children to explore, develop, grow, and gradually become independent, providing children with sufficient freedom that they can try new things and safely make mistakes while discovering their capabilities and extending themselves.

So a two-year-old needs love (hugs, playing games, food), limits (to be told “No” and have it followed up with action), and liberty (opportunity to try new skills while playing) as much as a 15-year-old needs love (listening, advice, food), limits (rules, curfews), and liberty (responsibilities, socialising).

Parenting is a challenging and difficult job, but if the three L’s are always present you will be on the right track.