Parenting and B.F. Skinner: It All Boils Down to Operant Conditioning

Do you remember the Youtube video that went viral about the three dogs that learned how to drive a Mini-Cooper? In case you don’t, I’ve included the clip to remind and entertain you.

In the video, three dogs rescued by the SPCA in New Zealand are trained by professional animal trainers to drive a mini-Cooper. Through months of painstaking training, the dogs are taught simple behaviors that when fit together will create a series of behaviors needed to drive a car. By the end of the training period, the dogs were able to climb into the driver’s seat, start the ignition, put the car into gear, accelerate, and navigate the car around a track.

It’s a masterpiece in operant conditioning and illustrates how a well-designed behavioral modification plan can reinforce desirable behaviors and eliminate less desirable ones.

Operant condition? Dog training? What does all of this have to do with parenting?

Parenting children, raising them to be fine, upstanding, stand-on-your-own-two-feet adults who make us proud requires training. As we mold our children’s behavior, we aren’t simply teaching them how to eat, maintain personal hygiene, how to become good students, or even the careers they pursue, we are molding their value systems. And all of this behavioral molding depends on operant conditioning, a system of operant and reinforcement first proposed by B.F. Skinner, a behaviorist and the Father of Operant Conditioning.

Who is B.F. Skinner? Think back, way back to your freshman year in college, Psychology 101. Remember the name? How about classical conditioning, the Skinner Box, lever-pressing rats, or pigeons that could read?

In 1948, B.F. Skinner conducted experiments with rats and pigeons to show that behavior could be changed or shaped through reinforcement. In one experiment, he placed a hungry rat in the skinner box, a box with a feed cup and a lever. Initially, the rat was rewarded with food if he approached the lever and touched the lever. Over time, the rat learned that touching and ultimately pressing the lever rewarded him with food. Desirable behavior was reinforced by food and the rat pressed the lever with increasing frequency. More interesting though, behaviors that offered no reward diminished.

Skinner also suggested that free will in humans really wasn’t random. It was also based on a series of reinforcements and that human beings tend to behave in ways that offer reward or that avoid punishment.

Here’s an example. You’ve joined a playgroup and for months, you’ve had positive feelings toward the other mothers, the social interactions you’re child is getting by playing with other toddlers, and the commaradarie you feel to those other mothers. Then one day, you make an innocent comment to a mother whose child has a cold. “Have you ever thought of using some of those natural treatments like Echinacea?” Instead of a balanced response, the mother screams at you and informs you that a) she doesn’t need another adult telling her how to raise her child, and b) there is no supporting evidence that those natural herbal treatments work one bit.

Your initial reaction is one of shock. Then, the effect of this negative interaction slowly begins to modify your behavior. You begin to feel negatively about the playgroup and look for other playgroups. You think about taking a mommy and me class offered at the same time. You avoid places where you feel you might cross paths with this mother.

Are these decisions based on free will? According to Skinner, they’re based more on operant conditioning. He believed that operant conditioning was the basis of all actions, thoughts, and learning. It was responsible for habits like smoking and alcoholism. It was responsible for our parenting styles and the life partners we choose.

Confused? Here’s another example, how you as a parent reinforce desirable behaviors.

You have a newborn and after a couple months of getting your baby on a feeding schedule, you and your child are still not sleeping. The problem? Your child doesn’t seem to know night from day. Throughout the bewitching hours (that cranky time from late afternoon and until night when babies tend to be cranky), your child is clearly tired, cries despite being fed, changed, or burped.

That was me in 1988. My now twenty four year old was a colicky, fussy infant and after too many sleepless night, my pediatrician recommended one of the most useful baby books of my parenting career. In 1985, Dr. Richard Ferber, a pediatrician and former director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children’s Hospital in Boston, published his landmark book, Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems.

The basic idea of the book is to train your child to soothe himself to sleep through operant conditioning. After a soothing, regular bedtime ritual (a bath, lullaby, or a last feeding), put your baby in bed awake, walk out, and close the door. Even if he cries, wait out short periods, five minutes or so, and then walk in. Rub your baby’s back, talk to him in a soothing tone, but don’t pick him up. Over a period of weeks, increase the “waiting” time to ten minutes, twelve minutes, fifteen minutes, etc. It’s painstaking and you might find it hard to watch the clock, but over time, you baby will learn that crying doesn’t reward him. You don’t pick him up at bed time, and he learns how to soothe himself to sleep.

While the Ferber Method, as it is called, has been the subject of criticism and has been deemed as cruel to a crying infant, it’s a perfect example of operant conditioning. If you consider Skinner’s theory when applying the Ferber Method, by not responding to your baby’s crying at bedtime, the crying, an undesirable behavior, diminishes over time and sleeping becomes the outcome.

Why is operant conditioning so important?

It’s the basis of all learning. Human beings learn by making associations, consciously or innately. Infants learn that breastfeeding provides milk and comfort. Saying “dada” makes mom and dad very happy. And in the teen years, doing homework and chores earns greater rewards and privileges.

It can be used to manage behavior. Teachers use operant conditioning methods in the classroom to manage classroom behavior and to keep students on task. It’s also a method you can consciously employ at home to encourage more constructive behaviors. Recently, my youngest found out that not brushing his tooth caused multiple cavities and a crumbling tooth. Despite our pleadings and naggings, the negative reinforcement was powerful reinforcement and helped shape new behaviors. He now flosses and brushes twice a day; and when he gets his cavities filled, his desire to avoid the pain of fillings will reinforce the benefits of tooth brushing and good personal hygiene.

Reinforcements must change with time. Based on the behavior, you need to change the reinforcement. Giving a teenager a lollypop isn’t as powerful of a reinforcement as it is to a toddler. Getting the keys to dad’s car means nothing to a five year old.

Non-adaptive behaviors don’t last. Generally speaking, human beings have an innate drive to survive. Learned behaviors that interfere with that need to survive don’t last, except in the case of addictions.  In each of us, there is a strong drive to survive. If you child is engaging in life-threatening behaviors like alcohol use or drugs, you need to aggressively take action to break that learned association and to replace the kind of reward a child gains by taking drugs. If you have a child in this situation, you should seek professional help.

While it’s easy to think that human beings operate on a more enlightened level and that the choices we make are based on free will rather than conditioned responses, B.F. Skinner would probably disagree. Though current behavioral thinking has discounted some of Skinner’s conclusions, the core of his theory, operant conditioning has stood the test of time. Human beings and animals alike learn behaviors because of a operant conditioning. As parents, becoming aware of the power of and creative uses of operant conditioning can make parenting a more thoughtful journey.

Distracted Parenting—These Stats Will Get Your Attention

Distracted parenting is the new distracted driving. It’s parenting while your attention is on something else, such as for instance, your smartphone. Distracted driving, say texting while driving, kills. But guess what? So does distracted parenting.

At least it’s beginning to look that way.

The Wall Street Journal did a report on distracted parenting and found that while government statistics on nonfatal injuries for children under the age of 5 had fallen for the past decade, between 2007 and 2010 they rose by 12%. That’s even though experts had expected the rates of injury to decline, due to improved safety laws and better play and nursery equipment. There had to be something going on and physicians thought it might have something to do with the use of smart phones—they’d been seeing plenty of kids coming into emergency rooms after getting into accidents while their parents were engrossed in using their phones. The doctors thought there must be a link.


Distracted Parenting Stats

The Wall Street Journal’s Linda Blake and Ben Worthen looked at smart phone statistics during the time the injury rate went up and found that during that same period, the rate of smart phone use among cell phone users went up from 6%-30%. That may not sound like much until you consider that more than half of Americans use mobile phones. During that time, injuries due to playground equipment rose by 17% while injuries due to nursery room equipment went up by 31%.

In the Wall Street Journal video clip you’re about to see (from September 2012), Clifford Nass, an authority on human-computer interaction, speaks about a need to adjust, even after parents look away from a mobile device and toward a child. Accidents can happen quite quickly, and may even happen during those fleeting moments that occur say every 20 seconds when a parent at the playground thinks to look up from his cell phone to check on his child’s well-being. The eyes and the mind aren’t automatically there, aren’t focused immediately. The eyes may have moved, but the brain is still on the app or webpage.

Dr. Ari Brown, a pediatrician in Austin, Texas is one of the few experts using the term “distracted parenting.” She says that parents must limit screen time and notes that the danger from distracted parenting is no different than that of distracted driving. “It only takes a minute with a caretaker’s eyes and attention elsewhere for a little kid to get into trouble—it’s a safety risk,” said Brown.

There is some mighty compelling evidence that parents distracted because of smart phone use risk unintended injury to their children. But there is another type of injury that is more insidious. This just in: one in three parents stays on a mobile phone while dining out at restaurants with their young children. According to research carried out by the Boston Medical Center, 73% of the parents observed used a mobile device continuously while dining out. Parents in 40 out of the 55 families observed  were found to be completely engrossed in their mobile devices, swiping, texting, and ignoring their children altogether.


Now that’s a shame. Dining is a natural time for socialization. It’s the time when families catch up with each other and work on the family relationship. Take away dinner and what have you got left? Bath time? A story and a kiss goodnight?

American families are busy and eating together is one of the rare times we are together as families. That’s why the best thing you could do for your child is to put your phone away during dinner, at the very least. Or else you risk injury to the parent child relationship. Not to mention the very real loss of the immediate value and pleasure of parenting and being parented. Kids have no choice about being born, but why have children if you’re not going to spend any time with them—real, undivided time, in which you are completely focused on them?


The lead author of the Boston Medical Center study, pediatrician Dr. Jenny Radesky said, “We chose to observe caregivers and children during meals because this is a daily routine in which face-to-face caregiver-child interactions are considered beneficial.”

It has been estimated that 40 per cent of American meals are eaten outside the home, so fast food outings probably represent a substantial proportion of family meals,” she said.

Radesky’s research team found that the caregivers most absorbed in their devices were the ones who were most likely to respond in a harsh manner to a mischievous child. In one case, a child got his foot kicked hard under the table while a mother pushed at her son’s hands as he tried to lift her face up and away from her tablet screen.

In this study for the most part, parents just weren’t paying attention to their kids. They were, well, distracted. In one case, a school-age girl was talking to her caregiver while the caregiver was looking at her phone. She nodded a bit to give the girl the impression she was listening to her, but never looked at her or issued an oral response. In another case, a female caregiver was holding a baby on her lap while looking at her cell phone. There were two boys with them, one a preschooler, the other school-age, both sitting in their chairs, looking around the room. The older boy begins to wiggle around and the caregiver, without looking up from the phone says, “Sit down.”


Sound familiar? *sigh*

Dr. Radesky, who specializes in developmental behavioral pediatrics at the Boston Medical Center made the following suggestions for healthier interactions between parents and children:

  • Make time to play with your child each day. “It’s the window into your child’s mind,” says Radesky.
  • Tune in to your child when you spend time together. Help your child solve problems and teach him or her how to cope with strong feelings.
  • When you need to connect to your children and listen to them, turn off the television, stow away all devices, and stop thinking about upcoming responsibilities and activities.
  • Take advantage of mealtimes to strengthen your bond with your child.

The thing is they aren’t children for very long. As a society, we need to reevaluate a child’s relative worth in comparison with our technological devices. One can only hope that the child will come out the winner.

Meantime, we can make a start as individuals and put away our devices when we’re with our children. Because when push comes to shove, if we’ll only stop to think about it, we know our children are worth the time, effort, and attention. Starting now.


Is Your Child Faking Illness?


“Mommy, I don’t feel so good.”

It’s the phrase that no one wants to hear. Just as you’ve finished showering and getting dressed for work, slapped sandwiches together for bag lunches, fed the dog, and served breakfast, here comes a spanner in the works—for more than one reason. If your child is sick, well, you can’t help but be worried about him. But what if he’s faking it?

In a way, that’s worse because you have to go with your gut. Decide his symptoms don’t warrant staying home from school and you run the risk of worrying you made the wrong decision, all day long. Worst of all is if you make him go to school and then he returns home flushed and feverish. Then you really feel like the evil mommy from Hell.

Is Faking Illness Common?

Sometimes you know your child is really ill. But what happens when you’re not sure? What should you do? And how faking illnesscommon is faking illness in order to stay home from school, anyway?

As it turns out, faking sick is not really all that common. Most children aren’t capable of the type of true deception needed to fake illness. Experts suggest that only 10% of school children try to get out of school by playing sick. However, a child may interpret the discomfort of anxiety as illness.

That means that if your child isn’t a hotshot in math, for instance, math class or a test in math may be anxiety-producing. If your child is the target of bullying, that could also be the catalyst for a child’s morning claims of feeling unwell. Anything related to school that evokes unpleasant feelings can in fact, lead a child to plead illness with an accompanying request to stay home.

Your primary parenting task is to protect your child’s well being. That means that your first order of business will be to establish whether or not your child is really ill. If your child is ill, he may just need chicken soup, love, and rest. But sometimes a child needs to see a physician. It’s your job to spot the hallmarks of true illness and to provide appropriate care in case of illness. Here are some guidelines to distinguish between real illness and the simple desire to stay home from school:

1) Check for Signs of Illness

Start by taking your child’s temperature. Normal body temperature can range from between 97-99 degrees depending on time of day and other factors. Doctors deem anything over 100.4 degrees a significant fever.

If your child has the flu, it will be self-evident. In addition to fever and flushed cheeks, there may be sudden fatigue, headache, body aches, and a cough that fails to bring up sputum. A cold virus produces milder symptoms such as a stuffy or runny nose. If your child complains of a sore throat, take a look—you can use a flashlight. Ask your child to say, “Ahhhhh,” while sticking her tongue out. If the tonsils look very red—almost bloody—sometimes with white spots, this is a sign of infection that requires a trip to the pediatrician.

2) Evidence of Fake Illness

The “symptoms” of fake illness come and go. Does your child have a hacking cough at 7:30 AM but laugh uproariously at a television cartoon 15 minutes later? Sick kids tend to drift in and out of sleep. Is your child sitting at the computer with no signs of fatigue even after a lengthy period of time? Rapid changes in behavior or typical behavior in a child claiming illness tend to suggest your child is not really ill.

Symptoms that are hard to explain or that migrate from one spot to another should be viewed with parental suspicion. The child that says, “My head and my right foot hurt,” and then an hour later states, “Now my elbow and my tummy hurt,” is probably anxious about school and not truly ill. Keep in mind that real illness can cause body aches which may appear to mimic the vagueness and migratory nature of fake symptoms.shutterstock_130275485

3) Process of Elimination

In making your decision as to whether or not your child is really ill, you’ll want to look for a reason your child might want to miss school. If you know that your child is having issues with a friend or having a major test in a difficult subject, this can be factored into your decision about whether or not to keep your child home from school. It’s possible for a child to come down with the flu on the day of a major test, so you may have to wing it and go with your parental instincts.

4) Work Through the Problem

Sometimes a child just needs to work through whatever is bugging her. Draw your child out and see if you can get her to identify and describe her issue at school. Staying home may be your child’s way of avoiding a problem she doesn’t know how to resolve. If you can discuss the issue, you can lead her to finding her own solutions and coping measures or suggest some of your own.

Don’t Reward Avoidance

It can be tricky to spot the difference between real illness and faking it, but it’s important to make the effort. Showering your child with love, toys, and special treats when she plays sick may reinforce the desire to fake illness in the future. As a parent, you want to avoid rewarding a child’s behavior when she’s trying to avoid the classroom.


Spotting Gifted Students

Spotting gifted students in a large classroom is no big deal. Or so you might have thought. You simply apply the rule of Sesame Street: “One of these things is not like the others.” shutterstock_178688006

After all, gifted children are different from their peers. They’d have to stick out somehow. So sure, you’d think. You can spot ‘em a mile away. They’re the pocket protector-wearing first graders solving quadratic equations as their peers stumble over, “See Dick run.”

Well, yes and no. The gifted child may indeed stand out in the classroom. But often, it’s for all the wrong reasons.

spotting gifted studentsThink about it: a super-bright kid in a class of garden variety, average students. He’s going to be BORED. Terrifically bored. And so, he may just end up exhibiting behaviors most of us would deem negative. In fact, we might even assume the gifted child has a learning disability or perhaps even an intellectual disability. That was certainly the case with Jason Barnett, whose parents were urged to put him in special ed. classes.

His behavior was odd.

Now, most of us are aware there is something slightly “off” about geniuses. Still, we continue to see genius as a desirable attribute. Parents avidly watch for signs of giftedness in their children.

The upshot is we expect odd behavior from geniuses but only after some reflection. More likely, we expect a genius to be more clever than most, a cut above his peers. If you Google “signs of giftedness” you’re going to see all those special virtues you’d like to see in your kid. Less often, you’re going to learn about the darker side of giftedness which may be confused with disability.

Here are some of those signs—the ones you wouldn’t expect to see:

  • Easily distracted from topics and tasks
  • Impatient when not called on to answer questions
  • Often bored
  • A tendency to disrupt the classroom
  • Dislikes repetition and memorization
  • Finishes work quickly but is sloppy
  • Tries to get out of doing classroom activities aside from those he finds interesting
  • Leaves projects incomplete
  • Bites off more than he can chew and then shows signs of stress
  • Mouths off to authority figures
  • Overreacts to criticism
  • Finds it difficult to do teamwork
  • May overlook practical details such as correct spelling
  • Forgets to do homework
  • Is hypercritical of both himself and others
  • Will belabor a point
  • Expects perfection in himself and others
  • Carries jokes too far
  • Often the class clown
  • Perceived as the classroom “know it all”
  • Can be bossy during group projects

No. You wouldn’t have expected to see this list of the negative traits of giftedness. But when you read them, did you find yourself nodding your head a bit? You see it, don’t you?

The most important thing to keep in mind about giftedness is that it is exceptional, rare. It is every bit a minority statistic within a classroom as the intellectual disability or ADHD. Teachers and parents should be watching for exceptional (read “different”) behavior and keeping an open mind about what this behavior means.


You want your child to be getting the most he can out of his time in the classroom. You want to give him the best possible chance to succeed, whether gifted or average. Let your child show the way to what he needs and be responsive to that.

Don’t be quick to interpret a negative behavior trait or in fact, any unusual classroom behavior. Instead, keep watching and noting the child’s behavior. Offer the child challenges to see how these are handled. Watch and wait until a clearer picture emerges. And absolutely consult with experts before pinning a label on a child: any label at all.


Honesty is the Best Policy (Usually)

Honesty is the best policy, a value we hold dear. And so we teach our children to tell the truth. It’s a clear moral choice we’ve developed as a society.

While honesty is something we appear to cherish, in reality, adults know better than to always tell the truth. There’s room to be flexible. One might lie, for instance, when one is confronted with a pair of Nazi jackboots or some other high-level evil. Most adults know that it’s okay to tell falsehoods to save lives. Many adults are willing to tell white lies to spare the feelings of others (“Does this dress make me look fat?”)

For children still under the age of 10 or so, morality is something unbendable, and justice concrete. Jean Piaget (1932-1965) called this stage of development, the heteronomous morality stage. Another expert in the field of cognitive and moral development, Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987), tested this idea with something called “Heinz’s Dilemma,” by posing a complex moral situation to children in various stages of moral development.

Heinz’s Dilemma

The wife of a man named Heinz is dying of cancer. She needs a certain drug to save her life, but it’s priced beyond the financial means of the couple. Heinz manages to save half the money. He goes to the pharmacist and pleads with him for access to the medication for his wife.

The druggist refuses.

Heinz breaks into the pharmacy late at night and steals the drug.

Kohlberg would tell this story to children of different ages and ask follow up questions such as this one: “Do you think it was right for Heinz to steal the medication?”

Getting Caught

As you can see, depending on the age of the children in the video, the responses are different. Very young children see the situation as an absolute: it’s wrong to steal because you might get caught.

As they age, the children begin to reason. One child in the video says, “I understand why he did it, but it’s wrong to steal.”

Parents need to be conscious of the moral development of their children so as to steer them in the right direction and always urge them forward. One reason we work at this as parents is to prevent a situation in which immoral behavior becomes a habit. If a child lies on a regular basis, out of fear of being punished, as parents we need to consider how to change tacks. If a child lies to inflate his reputation as did Prissy in Gone With the Wind, this must be discouraged.

Choosing Honesty

Lying may cause a child to feel discomfort while fear of punishment for lying can further exacerbate a child’s sense of disquiet. While children need conflict in order to learn about conflict resolution, we want them to feel free to speak the truth. We don’t want them to feel so heavy a burden of fear or discomfort that they learn to prefer lies over truth, choosing one level of discomfort over the discomfort of punishment.

In such a case, you may want to look for opportunities to praise your child for speaking the truth. Such positive feedback can go a long way toward mitigating the fear of punishment over telling an untruth. You might also tell your child stories to illustrate that truth takes courage while a lie is often (but not always) the coward’s way out. There are the old fairytales, such as The Emperor’s New Clothes; George Washington and the Cherry Tree; and The Boy Who Cried Wolf.  You can also search your local library shelves for a more contemporary, illustrated storybook on morals.

When Should Parents Get Involved?

A parent’s most natural instinct is to protect a child from harm. That means that when you see your child hurt or hurting, you’ll want to do something about it. It’s a need.

The question is: whose need is it? Yours or your child’s? It’s not always a good thing for a parent to get involved.

Most of the time, the only thing a parent should do is watch things play out, as hard as that is to bear. Children won’t always handle things as they should, but they learn something from each interaction, even as they make mistakes. If it helps you to grin and bear it, think of their mishaps as life lessons best learned through experience—and then sit on your hands. You’ve got to let them learn by doing. Otherwise you run the risk of turning them into dysfunctional adults with no understanding of how to read social cues or cope with grownup relationship issues.

Now that we’ve covered the general rule regarding parental involvement—stay out of things—let’s talk about exceptions to the rule:

1) You Can Talk to the Parents—Whether the issue is big or small, it makes a tremendous difference if you know you can talk to a child’s parents without them going all defensive on you. If your relationship is such that you can talk to the parents of the kid who’s messing with your kid in one way or another, by all means, go right ahead. In this case, it doesn’t much matter what the issue is because with parents like this, you can trust them to keep things confidential. You’re all just monitoring the situation.

(photo credit: sundaykofax for flickr)
(photo credit: sundaykofax for flickr)

For instance, if your child is learning rough language from another child and you can talk to the parents, you’re affording them an opportunity to speak about language with their child and let their thoughts be known to him. They don’t have to have an opener or betray your child’s confidence to have a discussion about appropriate language. The other child’s parents don’t need to say, “So-and-so’s parents talked to us about your filthy mouth,” to have a conversation with their child about swear words.

You can do the same thing with your own child: talk about appropriate language. It’s wonderful when parents can talk together and create strategy based on factual input. But you have to know the parents. You have to know they aren’t the kind of people to get all huffy and say, “My Larry would NEVER use such language,” and you have to be careful how you frame the discussion to avoid a defensive reaction.

You might say, for instance, “Jane has been using more curse words of late. I wonder if you’ve noticed the same thing with Larry?”

Level Playing Field

In volunteering the information about Jane, you avoid making it sound like Larry is the worst kid on earth. You’re leveling the playing field by admitting in your opening gambit that Jane uses this language. That frees Larry’s parents to talk about him with similar candor so you can have a real discussion with proper parenting end goals in mind.

2) Your Child Risks Serious Harm—If your child is small and an older, larger child is beating him up, you need to get involved. If there is a possibility that drugs or guns are part of the equation of what’s eating your kid, you need to get involved. Always, a parent must weigh the risks.

In the case of the bully, it’s your duty as a parent to speak to the faculty or administration of your child’s school if the problem takes place at school. If the problem is a neighborhood problem, you can try to speak to the parents and if that doesn’t work, go to the police. When you attempt to speak to the parents, warn them your next step is the police, if you think that might help them curb their child’s bullying activities.

If drugs are the problem, talk to your child to get a proper picture of the situation. Is there peer pressure? Can your child avoid the drug crowd? Speak to your child about the risks. Tell him about Phillip Seymour Hoffman, for instance.

Skip The Talk

If you sense guns are in the picture, skip right over the talk and the kid’s parents and go straight to the police. This is nothing to fool around with. If ever you had a role to play as a parent, here it is.

Depression and threats of suicide also warrant parental involvement. Get in touch with a mental professional immediately and let her professional judgment guide your actions in these matters. Not sure? Call that mental health professional anyway. Better safe than sorry.

(photo credit: crimfants for flickr)
(photo credit: crimfants for flickr)

It’s never easy deciding when to meddle in a child’s social affairs. The main thing is to make your involvement the exception rather than the rule. Remember: letting him find his own way is how you give him wings.