How To Teach Kids To Learn To Listen

If I had to share one of the most common questions that I get about parenting it is, “How do I get my kids to listen?” That is followed by struggles around creating consequences outside of taking screen time away. This week I was inspired by reviewing behavioral strategies in psychology. Today, I will share what decades of research on rats and cats teaches us about raising humans.

Reward or Punishment?

Much of what social science knows about the acquisition, maintenance and cessation of voluntary behaviors comes from principles in operant conditioning. Simply put, The Law of Effect states that behaviors that are followed by satisfying consequences are more likely to be repeated. A child’s behavior will only change because of the consequences that occur after the behavior occurs. 

As time and knowledge has progressed, we have learned to distinguish between positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishment. These concepts are often confused so let me explain to you how they work.

Positive reinforcement is applying a reward (dessert) after a desired behavior (eating vegetables). Negative reinforcement is when a child doesn’t want to eat their vegetables so they have a tantrum until you remove them away from them so they no longer have to eat them. By taking away the veggies you removed the screaming and therefore provided everyone with relief. Reinforcement is used when you want to increase a behavior. In this latter case, the child is training the parent (this is very common)!

In punishment, you as the parent want to decrease a behavior. You can do that by adding something such as spanking (not advised) or taking something away that leaves the child having lost something such as a time-out (loss of play time).

When teaching a child something new such as a chore or trying to get them to stay off of their phone, parents need to be consistent with the prompts (how you state what you want them to do or not do) and the consequences. Learning a skill such as picking up clothes off the floor takes practice. This practice should occur when they are calm, when not much resistance is happening and when you are also regulated.

Too often I hear stories of parents trying to get their kids to do something at what seems like a random time with a frustrated parent. This is a set up for failure. For example, you come home from work and there is a pile of dishes in the sink. If you had a tough day at work you may yell, get frustrated and insist that your teenager load the dishwasher right away. Your teenager may be confused, thinking to themselves that many times when you come home from work you don’t care this much that there are dishes in the sink. This lack of clear expectations, consistency and consequences (when it’s done and not done) are a recipe for noncompliance.

When attempting to shape the behavior of your child, you need to consider what is reinforcing for them. Sometimes parents make assumptions about what will be motivating for the child and don’t check in with the child about that. Often kids are able to tell you what they think would be motivating and what they think their consequence should be if they don’t do what you have asked. This helps to keep them engaged in the process and avoids the “it’s not fair” protest that so many parents receive.

With intention, clarity and a plan you really can have kids who listen on the first (or second) ask. And when they don’t (because they are human and are learning) you will have clear consequences to turn to. Just remember to have both reinforcers and punishments.

Happy Parenting!

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