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Tuesday, October 09, 2012 11:32 AM
I learnt something from a rat. When I studied psychology we had ‘rat labs’: we each had a red-eyed white rat to do experiments with for a year. I called mine ‘Arthur’ ( as in, ‘R’ for Rat) – a horrible rodent that tried to flunk me by being particularly stubborn in the mazes, and he would try to bite me with his yellow fangs if he had half a chance. I guess he knew that after I was through with him the med students were going to get him, which is a discouraging thought for an ambitious rat.
Anyway, he eventually taught me one of the basics of psychology – that behaviour that achieves desirable consequences will recur. If Arthur pushed the little button in his cage and got a squirt of Milo as a reward, he would keep on pushing the button.
Kids aren’t rats, but the same principle explains a lot of their behaviour. If they do something, and it gets a good result for them, they keep on doing it. “I hit my brother and he gave me his toy truck. That worked well.” “I threw a tantrum in the middle of the supermarket and mum gave me a bun. Now I know how to get a bun when we are shopping. I must remember to do that every time we go to the supermarket.” “I was grizzly at Grandmas and she sat me on her knee and gave me a cuddle and read me a story. I learn that grizzles get cuddles”. Basically, kids learn to sulk, pout, fight, whine, bully, lie and throw tantrums because it works for them.
A good question to ask yourself, whenever confronted with bad behaviour, is “What’s the pay-off? Is it attention? Or do I bribe them with cuddles? Or is it just the emotion, even if it is negative emotion?”
Why do they use that whiney voice? Because it works. Why not promise yourself, “I’ll never give into a request that is made in a rude or unpleasant way”. If they learn that their behaviour doesn’t get them what they want, it will fade away, eventually. But Arthur taught me something else – if you remove the rewards, the behaviour actually increases for a while before it fades away. So, it’s worth holding the line and getting it right, because you do not have the option of sending your kids off to Med School for experiments.
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