Psychology has a lovely, neat answer to that question. A powerful tool we can use to get our children to behave is to point out what they are doing right and to keep on pointing this out to them. Reinforcement is the technical name used by psychologists to describe a very effective method of increasing behaviour. There is even a magic ratio associated with this idea of reinforcement, 5:1. This ratio applies to all human behaviour not just children’s behaviour. It is necessary to deliver five reinforcing statement to one corrective. This means that if you tell someone to do something you will need to follow that up with five other reinforcing statements that increase their behaviour. In fact, this ratio has implications for research into successful marriages. In a 2003 paper, Is there a formula for marriage?, John Gottman and James Murray write about the 5:1 ratio being a way to identify a successful marriage. Looking for a way to get your spouse to do the dishes/put the rubbish out? The science tells us that reinforcing desired behaviour using a ratio of 1 telling them what to do followed by 5 incidents of reinforcement will get them onto it.
This idea of reinforcement is famous enough to have made it onto T.V. on The Big Bang Theory https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JA96Fba-WHk. Check out this link to a clip of Sheldon, ‘training’ Penny to perform particular behaviours. As funny as this is, it is a little unrealistic, this is T.V. after all. There are a few technical inaccuracies in the video. Let me know if you can spot them. When you are working with human behaviour it’s not a great idea to reinforce behaviour with food, especially with as much frequency as needed to get to the 5:1 ratio. Leonard’s outrage at Sheldon’s behaviour is pretty much how most of us would react to this kind of manipulation of someone’s behaviour.
If you would like someone to do more of a particular behaviour, step one is to make sure they know how to do that behaviour. If you aren’t sure, then step two is to show them how to do it. Then give them some opportunities to practice with a more skilled person who can guide them through the behaviour. All through this process make sure you are using reinforcement at each step. To reinforce well you must be specific about what someone is doing well.
An example of a narrative in a setting where a parent might be teaching their child to cut an apple might go like this. “Great work holding the knife in a safe grip - you are doing it just like I showed you”. “OK, now put the sharp point into the top of the apple, making sure you keep your fingers away from the blade”. “That’s excellent”. “You’ve put the knife exactly where I showed you”. Each statement has a component of describing the exact action taken and an element of praise linked with that. Add on comments to increase the reinforcement could be, “you did such great work cutting your own apple, I’m going to have to tell mum/grandad about how well you are managing”. Remember the goal is that 5:1 ratio. With your own child reinforcement can also be a hug, high five, arm around the shoulder or other non verbal methods of demonstrating your approval. Even pointing to their action, smiling and giving a thumbs up will work once you are sure they know what it is you are pointing to.
Being a child means that there is a lot of stuff you don’t know. Most of the time as adults instruct children they mix in reinforcement. Children are then happy to accept the instructions and learn a new skill and complete set tasks. However, when something goes wrong and you start to wonder how you are going to get your child to do any one of the myriad things we ask of them in a day or week think about how you could add a little reinforcement into the mix and see if you can make a difference with just this one small change (in your behaviour).
Robyn Stead, Child Psychologist and Educator, lives and works in central Auckland.