Thinking About Kids

Parents, kids, and the way we live together

How To Create a Juvenile Delinquent With Materials Easily Available At Home

Parents teach kids a lot - not all of it good

The mom looked down, shocked, at her bare legs and worn underpants.  She was standing at the edge of a crowded gym.  Her 4 year old crowed triumphantly, holding the skirt he had just tugged to her ankles, his eyes on her face and ready to run.

She snatched up the skirt, snagged him by the waist, and strode from the room. 

I never saw her again.

She had been asked by the YMCA instructor to watch her older son, who was maybe 8 years old.  Her eldest was enrolled in a Tang Soo Do martial arts class.  The teacher was having trouble with him, and had asked her to come to see if she could offer some insight and help before the son was asked to leave.

From the beginning, her four year old had been unhappy. 

It was a big gym, with 20 or so kids lined up in disciplined rows from the most to the least experienced.  The parents were huddled at the back, mostly sitting in the crowd of folded chairs, reading or talking quietly while they watched.  Someone gave her a chair when she walked in, seeing how antsy her young one was. 

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He started out on her lap, but got up as she ignored his squirms.  He played for a minute or so on the floor, then started wandering around and behind the gymnastic mats.  After a few passes, he began to walk and then run faster and faster, back and forth along the end of the gym.  His mom stood up next to the door, ignoring him, her eyes on the class.  As he ran by, he would hit her leg and she would glance down, say hush, then turn her eyes back to her eldest. 

Now his running was faster and more and more into the room.  He started making loud swooshing sounds as he banked his turns.  His hands become more grasping as he snatched at her skirt as he ran by.

She ignored him.

Finally, he ran up and stopped, grabbing the elastic waist of her skirt, and tugging it down.  He looked at her expectantly.

The whole interaction had taken, maybe, 5 minutes.

It takes a lot of training for a child to be so effective at getting his mother’s attention.

Gerri Patterson is a developmental psychologist who has studied parent-child relationships like this since at least the 1960’s.  His background is in traditional behaviorism and social learning theory, which he has used elegantly to help understand why sometimes parents can train their kids to act exactly how they don’t want them to, and how some kids can train parents to parent them badly. 

The tools are simply: reward, punishment, negative reinforcement, and modeling.

Psychologists use words very specifically and in ways that don’t always match our day-to-day usage of them.  To a behaviorist, the words reward, punishment, and negative reinforcement are defined by whether or not they increase or decrease the likelihood that the behavior that preceded them are going to happen again.  It has nothing to do with whether reactions themselves are pleasant or unpleasant.

  • A reward is anything that increases the likelihood that a behavior will happen again.  You give me flowers, I tell you I love you, you’re more likely to give me flowers again.  Saying “I love you” is a reward.  Stealing a cookie and eating it without getting caught is inherently rewarding. 
  • Punishment is anything that decreases the likelihood that a behavior will happen again.  You give me flowers, I don’t really pay attention, you’re less likely to do it again.  When my dog comes up to me expectantly, begging to go out, and I ignore her, it decreases the likelihood that she’ll do it again (i.e., it is a punishment) and increases the likelihood that she will meet her needs in other ways (i.e., by peeing on the floor). 
  • Negative reinforcement can also be thought of as escape conditioning.  Here the word ‘negative’ means the absence of something (like ‘negative space’ in art – the space around an object).  The key thing in negative reinforcement is that you are in a situation that you do not like.  Getting away from that situation is rewarding.  I yell at you.  You leave the room and feel better.  You hold a gun to me and ask for my wallet.  I am terrified and hand it to you.  You put the gun away.  Your taking the gun away (withdrawing the aversive stimulus) is rewarding and makes it much more likely that the next time someone holds a gun to me I’ll do whatever they say. Negative reinforcement. 

The tricky part of all this is figuring out which is which and in what situation.  For example, if you study hard for a test and get a B, that grade is rewarding if you thought you were going to fail.  It is punishment if you hoped for an A.  If you had gotten drunk the night before and thought you were going to fail the test, not failing would increase the likelihood that you’d get drunk again before your next test.

Understanding what is a reward and what is a punishment is especially difficult when you’re talking about something as complicated and nuanced as the interactions between kids and their parents.  But it is really important to think about what is being taught (often accidentally and always by both parties) because parents and kids have hundreds of opportunities to reinforce each other’s behavior every single day.  Parents shape kids and kids shape parents.

By carefully following kids from toddlerhood into early adulthood, Patterson has found that the kids who grow up to get in trouble – arrests, drug use, and jail time – tend to have experienced a particular pattern of reinforcement.  There are lots of other ways to grow up to get in trouble too, obviously, but this is one clear pathway.

It begins before the child even starts school.

Step 1: Begin with a lively, active, stubborn, or difficult child. 

Step 2: Teach the child that disobedience makes rules go away. 

It’s easy.  Ask them to put away their toys.  When they don’t, ignore it and pick them up yourself.  Or yell at them, but don’t make them do it.  If they cry or whine or yell, tell them they can do it later.  Or tomorrow.  When they hit their brother instead of picking up the toys, send them both upstairs in separate rooms, where their other toys are.  All parents do this sometimes.  Parents whose kids grow up to get in trouble tend to do it a lot.

Step 3: Let the child teach you not to ask them to do anything they don’t want to and not to correct them when you don’t like how they behave.  It is exhausting working with an uncooperative kid.  Why ask them to turn off the tv, when last night it wound up in a two hour tantrum that left you both exhausted and angry?  One of the most important steps to training a kid to behave badly is simply to stop trying to parent them because it is so, so hard and it never seems to work.  Reinforcement works in both directions.  And the more you’ve trained them not to listen, the better they can train you not to parent them. 

Step 4: Fail to reward behaviors you like.  Or, better still, punish good behaviors and reward bad ones.  This is both subtle and important.  When you’ve had a hard day and your child is playing happily – or even just zoning out in front of the tv – sometimes you just want to ignore them, hoping that it will last just five minutes longer.    Parents whose kids tend to get into trouble ignore their children when they are well behaved and only pay attention to them they are bad.  Bottom line: if you want attention, you’ve got to misbehave.  The cliché that you should try to catch your kids being good has a lot of truth to it.

Parents can take this a step further by inadvertently punishing their children for being good.  The toddler brings you a flower and you dismiss it as a dandelion.  They proudly show you their drawing and you criticize the way they drew the tree.  They swear at you and you laugh at the incongruity or tickle them when they hit you.

Step 5: Let the child teach you that they’re not fun to be around. 

Having carefully failed to teach the child to behave appropriately and to become difficult and stubborn whenever things get hard, they’re ready for school.  This is a tough transition, because school is a place where kids spend a lot of time getting asked to do tough things that they don’t want to or that are hard for them at first.  So what happens next?

Step 6: The child misbehaves in school and doesn’t learn well. 

The child has learned that when they are asked to do something they don’t like, they can ignore it and they won’t have to do it.  If that doesn’t work, they can make a fuss and distract the adult so they can get some attention.  Not good attention, but some is better than none.  All of this takes away from the hard work of learning.  And it does nothing for their relationship with the teacher either.

Step 7: Kids who behave well and do well in school won’t play with the child. 

In elementary school, most kids love their teachers and want to do well and be good.  Kids who get in trouble are rejected by their peers.

Step 8: The child begins to hang out with other kids who get in trouble.  These new friends tease them when do what the teacher asks, don’t respond positively when the child acts friendly, and laugh appreciatively and sympathetically when the child tells them about his escapades and misbehavior.  And more learning occurs. 

So now we have child who is in late elementary school or middle school, when lots of kids have new opportunities to get into more serious trouble that can get them in contact with the police or other authorities. 

Step 9:  The child becomes committed to his deviant friends, some of whom are older and already involved in more serious problem behavior, like drugs or drinking.  Success at school or getting along with parents is not reinforced.  The kids laugh uproariously at tales of misdeeds – real, planned, or imagined.  They are scornful of suggestions that trouble be avoided. 

And now you have a child with the real potential to get in serious trouble and without the skills they need to succeed in school or maybe even in the workforce.  Their social skills – being pleasing, giving compliments, listening appreciatively and attentively – probably aren’t well developed either, because those are not the social norms that help them with their group of friends. 

Obviously there are lots and lots of places where this pattern can be broken.  Some kids have easy temperaments and seem to move towards good behavior no matter what happens to them.  Some kids are shy and, although they don’t do well in school, also don’t like hanging out with the rougher crowd of kids who tries to befriend them.  Sometimes there are just no troublemakers for them to hang out with – and this might be the best thing that ever happens to them.  Some kids wind up with great friends or talented teachers who bring out their best and teach some of the skills they were initially lacking.  There are many turns off of this path.  But lots of kids stay on that path all the way to the end.

You can see the patterning the Patterson described in the mom and her two young sons. 

The mom brought her youngest into a situation where he was going to be bored without any plans for keeping him quiet or amused.  (I think half of the problems that kids have come from putting them in situations where it’s just plain hard for them to behave well.)  When the child started to misbehave, the mom ignored him, so running around was more rewarding than not running around and had no negative consequences.  The only time his mom noticed him at all was when he ran by and hit her (thus reinforcing the behavior).  As his behavior got wilder, she ignored him more and more, so it took more and more extravagant behavior to get him noticed.  Then the spark of genius – grabbing the skirt.  Getting yelled at isn’t fun (and I never did hear her yell), but hauling down the skirt certainly got her attention.  And he was no longer hanging out, bored, in the gym.  Negative reinforcement.  Even if the consequences later weren’t good, that little bit of learning was going to last.

Might another child with the same mom have laid down and fallen asleep or whined quietly or read a book or started up a game with one of the other waiting parents? Sure.  But that’s not this active child’s temperament.  It’s not what he brought to the situation.

Interestingly, the reason the mom was there in the first place was because her older son was doing the same thing in class.  Not pulling down the teacher’s skirt, but acting aversively so that he didn’t have to do what he didn’t want to do, and getting a lot of attention by being bad.

This Tang Soo Do class, like every good martial arts class I have ever seen, was very disciplined and organized.  Most young kids sign up for karate classes because they’re all excited about flying kicks, punching each other, spinning leaps, and breaking boards.  That’s not the first thing they get.  This class begin with bows, lots of pushups, and group recitation of shared values (seeing a group of teens and preteens shouting “Obedience to parents!” always cracked me up).   Kicks and punches were carefully taught under very controlled conditions.  Sparring was carefully monitored and no or low contact.  Kids who were caught fighting outside of class were disciplined or asked to leave the program.  Hard work and lots of encouragement and praise were the norm.

When the mom’s 8 year old entered this class, he began cheerfully and enthusiastically, like the other kids.  But when he got to his 10th or 12th pushup, he’d start to fade and then lie with his chest on the mat.  The teacher would come over and encourage him.  No, he couldn’t do more.  His hand hurt.  The instructor would nod and tell him to join in on the situps.  No, he was feeling a little sick.  Jogging around the gym?  “My leg hurts.  Can I just sit out?”  Now it’s time for learning punches.  After the exercise, the least experienced kids are paired with the older students so that things don’t get out of control and are carefully monitored.  “Oh, I didn’t mean to hit you.”  “Did I just kick you in the stomach?”  “Me?  I wasn’t laughing when that guy got hurt!” 

The instructor for this class was really impressive in his ability to keep these kids happy and working hard.  He gave kids responsibility and made every kid feel like they were doing their best, that their hard work was appreciated, and that he was proud of them.  Now this one child was taking a quarter, maybe half of all his time and attention in each and every class.  None of the experienced students would work with him because he didn’t listen, wouldn’t do what he was told, and kept hurting them and smirking that he was sorry.  He couldn’t work with the less experienced kids, because he distracted them and got them in trouble too.  So his mom was asked to come in.

And that’s where our story began.

And that’s what Patterson sees when kids move from home to school and into the peer group.

Nancy Darling, Ph.D., is a Professor at Oberlin College.

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