There's More to Parenting Than Reinforcing Good Behavior

When — and why — it's sometimes okay to break the rules.

Posted Sep 28, 2020

“The only thing I will eat for breakfast is a bagel with Nutella,” my not-quite-five-year-old declared, arms crossed and ready to rumble. I had been saying “no” to him for the better part of a half-hour — although it’s not the worst thing in the world, the delicious chocolate hazelnut spread isn’t my first choice when it comes to giving my kids a healthy start to their day.

Our breakfast showdown came as a “break” from the morning’s other logjam: When my son proved unable to choose a shirt, we gave up for a while in favor of some food. (No, this is not amateur hour. Of course we had picked his outfit the night before. He changed his mind, though, as many kids do, making our pre-planning somewhat less than the magic solution it’s often cracked up to be.)

And so this time, I relented. “OK,” I said. “One Nutella bagel coming up. But do you know why I’m changing my mind?” My intention, per my recent post about giving in more generally, was to make clear that my decision was based on my own re-evaluation of the situation, not on my son’s behavior.

Source: Pixabay/192635

“Because I kept whining?” my son offered, with a wide-eyed inquisitiveness that belied his sincere desire to get the right answer. I laughed because he’s smart, but also because he was right. At least partially.

Although psychologists and parents alike have been well trained to view children's behavior through the lens of operant conditioning principles — the theory that given behaviors increase or decrease depending on the consequences that follow — it’s often just not that simple. There are so many other factors to consider when it comes to our daily parenting decisions. Here are three of the most important.

1. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Although dated in certain ways and disproven in certain others, the premise of Maslow’s theory — that human beings are motivated by a tiered set of needs, the bottom of which must be met before attention can be turned to the next one up the ladder — remains relevant.

Going back to my example, I had bigger fish to fry in that moment than worrying about whether my son would end up whining the next morning — and perhaps every morning thereafter — to eat Nutella for breakfast. If he did, I would deal with it. Right then, however, my highest priority was moving past breakfast so that we could get back to getting dressed, so that I could drop him off at (thankfully, in-person) school on time, so that I could begin my virtual client sessions on time, so that I could help support our family... You get the idea.

It is okay to acknowledge that concern about reinforcing your child’s undesirable behavior is not always your number one priority. There is no shame in owning that other things sometimes have to come first to serve a greater good, particularly now, six months and change into a pandemic. Maybe if we all said it out loud, and acted accordingly, we could eliminate at least some of the stigma that tends to accompany these kinds of decisions.

2. Human beings are not motivated by rewards and consequences alone. In fact, research suggests that we are tremendously motivated by — wired for, in fact — relationships and interpersonal connectedness, especially so for young children. It is undoubtedly true that, looking at parent-child relationships generally, a parent’s ability to hold clear and strong boundaries is critical to a strong parent-child connection. When it comes to specific circumstances, though, and in the context of other factors at play in the moment, there may well be times it makes sense to let things slide.

Back again to my example. It was only 7:45 am, and the connection between my son and me was already feeling tenuous. I felt frustrated and impatient with him, and no doubt he felt misunderstood and not helped by me. I knew that if I gave him the Nutella bagel, we would have a few minutes to sit and connect, to reset and repair our rupture before the remaining difficult task of getting dressed. That felt critically important, particularly in light of our impending separation at drop-off a couple of hours later.

3.  Sometimes children get “stuck” on a particular set of emotions, actions, or thoughts, particularly when they feel overwhelmed or anxious. It’s pretty hard to be a kid, especially in September at the start of a new school year, and especially in September at the start of a new school year during a global pandemic.

Many children are experiencing some form of emotional dysregulation right now, even if not at clinical levels. When that's the case, rigid thinking, difficulties with impulse control, and hyperfocus (i.e., intense fixation) run rampant. It’s all part of a behavioral pattern we call perseveration. My son was perseverating on having the Nutella bagel, before which he’d been perseverating on what to wear. He was clearly having a “stuck” morning, and, again, helping him get “unstuck” felt like a more important and more relevant priority than potentially reinforcing his whining by giving in.

As I handed my son his coveted breakfast, I attempted to sum it all up. “Well,” I said, “You did tell me something with your whining, and I appreciate that. I think this Nutella bagel is really important for both of us this morning.” He smiled, did his signature silly little head shaking dance, and we both moved on with the day.

Oh, and spoiler alert: The next morning he requested — with the word “please” and all — a breakfast of soft-boiled eggs.