Tools for Tired Parents: The Power of the Premack Principle
How a new twist on an old axiom can lead to meaningful behavior changes.
Posted September 23, 2019 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
Introduce me to a parent who has not wrestled with how to modify their child's behavior in the home. While there are myriad ways to approach a child's behavior problems, I'd like to suggest an easy-to-implement tool for parents who have not had success with other methods.
The Premack principle , originally explored using experiments with monkeys, suggests that naturally-occurring high-frequency behaviors are more rewarding than naturally-occurring low-frequency behavior. This finding isn't shocking. Think about the average kid; without parental intervention, their dessert-eating frequency would be much higher than their vegetable-eating frequency. As a result, parents have learned to say: "You can have dessert once you've finished all your veggies."
Still, parents frequently miss out on the full potential of this principle by misidentifying high-frequency behavior. They're quick to implement traditional consequences when a child's behavior is undesirable and offer traditional rewards if the child complies. Some common examples include:
- Lose electronics
- Go to room
- Early bedtime
- Lose dessert
- Stay up late
- New toy
Of course, these things can work well! But problems arise when putting them into practice. These days, most parents feel safer with their child taking a phone to school (I've seen it as young as 7 years old), so grounding from electronics may not be something they are comfortable with.
In regards to candy and dessert as rewards or consequences, parents often have reasonable concerns that they'll teach their child to associate sugar with positive emotions and set the child up for a maladaptive relationship with food down the road.
Parents often either don't have cash to incentivize their child's behavior, or the children are so young that money doesn't interest them. Similarly, parents don't want to risk their child learning to barter for task completion (e.g. "I'll finish my homework before dinner only if you give me a dollar"). The classic "go to your room" consequence may be effective—assuming the child doesn't like being in their room; but most children have toys or even video games in their room. For parents of children with undesirable behavior in the home, little traction is gained by implementing these traditional rewards or consequences.
So, what are parents supposed to do? My suggestion is this: sit your child down and have a candid conversation about what sorts of things they really like doing at home. You might be surprised by their answers! In a conversation that I recently facilitated between a mother and her 8-year-old son in an attempt to identify effective rewards for good behavior, the following ideas came up:
- Even though it's smaller, I like riding my sister's bike because I can do wheelies.
- I like jumping on the trampoline without my little sister because I don't have to be careful not to accidentally hit her.
- I really like making cookies with mom.
- I had fun last week when dad taught me how to play checkers.
- I like when you [mom] let me hold the leash when we walk the dog.
While mom wasn't too surprised that her son liked making cookies or playing checkers with dad, she had no idea that he liked to try to do bike tricks or cared about holding the leash when they walked the dog. Instead of forcing our preconceived notion of what is rewarding (money, sweets, etc.) on the child, we worked with him to identify the behaviors that—if he were given his choice—would occur at a higher frequency than they currently did.
Sure enough, 10 minutes of alone trampoline time or the offer of holding the dog's leash when they walked it was much more effective at incentivizing behavior than money, candy, and even the video game time she had tried previously. Moreover, parents have an opportunity to spend time with their child when they choose relational activities like baking together.
For families of children with ADHD, communicating about which behaviors are most rewarding may be especially helpful . The authors of this paper provide the example of a young Michael Phelps (who has shared his diagnosis of ADHD publicly) and his mother finding that swimming was a desired high-frequency activity. And, despite choosing to discontinue his ADHD medication, he never seemed to have difficulty focusing on swimming-related activities. Now, I can't promise your child will be a gold-medal winning Olympian, but I'm willing to bet your child can come up with some unique reward ideas you haven't thought of.
But what about consequences? The prevailing advice for parents is to use strategic ignoring of undesirable behavior with young children and an organized, consistent strategy with older children. Rest assured, research in cognitive psychology has found that reward magnitude linearly scales with reinforcement strength (more highly desired rewards elicit a higher likelihood of behavior repetition) but likelihood to discontinue a behavior does not scale with the magnitude of the consequence .
As a result, parents should be motivated to determine what sort of rewards may be particularly meaningful (high magnitude) for their child. For younger kids, getting just a sip of mom's coffee in the morning might be a real treat! Taking the time to note a child's unique desired high-frequency behaviors can significantly increase the effectiveness of rewarding the behavior you want to see more of. And the joint relational activity of planning a "menu" of rewards may serve to lay the groundwork for future collaboration and begin to build in your child a sense of responsibility for his or her actions.
Kubanek, J., Snyder, L. H., & Abrams, R. A. (2015). Reward and punishment act as distinct factors in guiding behavior. Cognition, 139, 154-167. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2015.03.005
Premack, D. (1959). Toward empirical behavior laws: I. positive reinforcement. Psychological Review, 66(4), 219-233. doi:10.1037/h0040891
Williams, N. J., Harries, M., & Williams, A. M. (2014). Gaining control: A new perspective on the parenting of children with AD/HD. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 11(3), 277-297. doi:10.1080/14780887.2014.902524