I want to start by saying ‘thank you’ to those who sent me stories of how you applied the tools and principles of behavioral science to your parenting challenges. I wish I could recall all of the stories I’ve heard through the years but in the end what is most satisfying to me is seeing people light up about how well the behavioral technology worked and how it leads to positive behavior where previously it had been problematic, and in their view, unresolvable.
With that, I share the following stories, from real parents, about the positive impact the science of behavior has had on their personal lives:
Learning to Drive
When my son, Sam, was learning how to drive, even though I knew better, I found myself only calling out the things he did wrong. Once I realized what I was doing wrong; I had to force myself to pay attention and identify the things he did right, and then specifically tell him about it. The first behavior I made a point to notice was following the speed limit. After watching him drive across town for a little while, I told him I noticed how well he did in following the speed limit. He was so happy and proud that I noticed, and said “I know! I do it all the time!” His response reinforced me to start noticing more of what he does right. I then made a list of specific driving behaviors to remind myself to observe them such as, maintaining 3 second following distance, making complete stops, or stopping with enough space to see the bottom of the tires of the car in front of you. I only picked one at a time so that I wouldn’t overdo it. It really made me realize the strong tendency to fall back into the pattern of only noticing the things he does wrong. Without a deliberate effort to watch for specific behaviors (that I had to write down and look for), I would have fallen back into the old ways.
Pinpointing seemed overwhelming to me when I thought about my work environment but it became more manageable after I first applied it at home. I learned its importance when working to teach my son John to wash the dishes when he was about 7 or 8. It was his task at night to wash and my task to dry. When we first started, I was confused when he left the kitchen with several dirty pots and pans in the sink and went to play. I said “Wait a minute, you’re not done!” He said “Yes I am!” I said “What about these?,” pointing to the dirty pots and pans. He looked at me begrudgingly saying “You said I only had to do the dishes!”
What Makes Them Happy
My daughter used an approach to identify things that were reinforcing to her twin daughters when they were 18 months old. She wanted to determine effective reinforcers for behaviors associated with toilet training and also for other toddler behaviors. Individually, she placed several objects in front of the first child and whatever item the daughter picked first was identified as a reinforcer. She then placed the remaining items in front of the child and repeated the process until 3 items were identified. She then went through the same process with the second child. Once she did this with both girls, she had effective reinforcers. It’s worth noting that reinforcers do change so the process, or a modified version, will need to be repeated over time. By the way, the twins picked different objects.
Seeing Eye to Eye with Your Teenager
While I thought I had tried everything to improve my relationship with my teenage daughter, our relationship still felt strained. After learning about the 4:1 Rule (four positive comments to one negative), I thought it was worth a try. Over a one week period, I consciously worked at applying this rule, and did so as genuinely as possible. I saw improvement in the first day and kept at it. By weeks end, our conversations had significantly improved, and were even enjoyable. This not only taught me how to improve my personal relationships but it also taught me that when you focus on the positives, you see more things you would have otherwise not seen.
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