Things I Overheard During the Holidays – (Part II)

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(This is the second of two posts sharing remarks I overheard during my holiday break, and the reactions in my mind as I reflected on the meaning contained within each.)

I was at Costco during the holiday week picking up a few things for the family.  As I was waiting in line to check out, I realized a young family of three had moved into line behind me.  A mother, a father, and a little boy of about four were waiting patiently, just like the rest of us.  Well, not everyone was waiting patiently.  The little boy was a little fidgety and a little whiny. 

As the person in front of me finished checking out and as I moved to the head of the conveyor to unload my cart, I heard the youngster tell his Dad that he wanted the candy bars he could see from his vantage point sitting in the cart.  I didn’t hear it, but I assume the child was told “no” because he then began to demand the candy bars more persistently.  It was not quite a tantrum, but he didn’t have to go far to get there.

At this point the father said, “how come every time we come to Costco, you pester me for things?”

I realized we had the makings of yet another example of the classic power struggle between parent and child, most often played out in the checkout line at the supermarket when the child sees something he wants on the sales rack.  In the classic story, the child is first told “no” by the parent, but in the end gets what he wants, usually after a temper tantrum of one degree or another. 

So, in almost all these cases the answer to the question the father posed rather rhetorically to his son at Costco is, “because it works.”

To explain what I mean, we have to talk a little behavior management, specifically operant theory.  According to operant theory, the things that people do, their behaviors, tend to be repeated when those behaviors have generated a positive outcome under similar conditions in the past.  All behavior has a context.  When a person’s behavior produces a positive outcome or consequence within that context, the next time the person finds himself in a similar context, it will more likely be the case that he will exhibit the behavior again…in order to repeat the desirable outcome.  This is, in the technical parlance of operant theory, the basic operant relationship known as positive reinforcement; the antecedent conditions set the occasion for the behavior to be used because under very similar conditions in the past the behavior produced a positive, desirable consequence.  Behaviors become stronger as a result of multiple iterations of this A-B-C relationship. 

How about an example from real life: I watch a comedy on television every Tuesday because so far every time I’ve seen it I have laughed at its humor and wound up in a better mood.  The context is the realization that it is Tuesday and I am at home in front of my TV, the behavior is watching the show, and the reward is the good mood the comedy imparts on me.  Here’s another example:  In the winter, upon returning home from work to a chilly house, I turn up the heat and put on a sweatshirt, which allows me to keep warm. 

So “how come every time we come to Costco, you pester me for things?”  Because of the likelihood of a history of Dad giving the child the object of his desire whilst at Costco.  The child’s behavior has produced, repeatedly over time, a positive consequence in the context of being in the checkout line at Costco.  It is very likely that each time the child finds himself in that checkout line, he will ask for something.  And each time he gets what he wants, the likelihood of asking again in the future is strengthened even more.

What is a parent to do?  Most certainly if the Dad refuses to give in, there will be an embarrassing tantrum.

Refusing to give in is just what he needs to do, though.  He needs to get over the embarrassment of the tantrum and stick to a plan of ignoring the request.  Each time the child is in the checkout line and has his request ignored, the relationship between the behavior and the positive consequence will be weakened.  The tantrum will get worse at first (stay strong!), but eventually it will disappear altogether because the operant relationship between behavior and consequence will have been broken.  (For those of you who are keeping track of the technical aspects of operant theory in this post, the technical term for this is extinction.)  Of course, if the father has a weak moment and gives in, even once, all bets are off because the child will realize that although he may not get his way every time, there is still hope that it will work out for him every once in a while.  (For you operant theorists, this is intermittent reinforcement, the mortal enemy of extinction.)

By the way, there are many other operant aspects to the checkout line scenario.  For example, when faced with a child who is increasingly more likely to have a tantrum, a natural response from a Dad who doesn’t want to be embarrassed might be to give in to the demand more quickly.  In this case the Dad’s behavior is being negatively reinforced.  But the explanation of how that works is a whole other story.  If you want to hear about that or if you want to see the related exercise I used with my behavior management students at WCU (based on trips to the grocery store with one of my own sons), leave me a comment.  Otherwise, no homework tonight.

Until next time…

Super User

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