Parenting Q and A

by Brian Madvig, PhD


Q: Why do my children keep doing the behavior I would like them to stop, even when I am giving them time outs?

There may be a number of reasons why this is occurring, and the following answer addresses one of the most common contributors to this problem. In order to address this question, I need to start out with a question: What is the speed limit on the Tri-State Tollway, Interstate 294? I often ask this question and get the incorrect response of 55mph. Fifty-five miles per hour is the posted speed limit, but if you ever travel the highway, you find that the actual speed limit is 70mph (probably a conservative estimate!). So why is that? The reason that the speed limit is 70mph on that highway is because the highway patrol does not consistently enforce the posted 55mph speed limit. Occasionally they enforce it for a couple of days with the result that people slow down, at least until they see that it no longer being consistently enforced. Slowly, surely, the drivers creep back up to the 70mph that they had been traveling previously.

The most important word in the last paragraph was consistently. Like the highway patrol, if we are not consistent in our time-outs or other interventions, our children will continue the behaviors that we would like them to stop. If they are only given a time-out every 5 or 6 times they do a behavior, they learn they can do it 4 or 5 times without consequences. They see these as pretty good odds. In order to make time-outs effective, problem behaviors need to be consistently consequenced.

With consistent consequences, the problem behaviors will decrease markedly. In the northern suburb of Northfield, Willow Road is a well-traveled, two-lane street going through the village. Though often in a hurry, the people driving on Willow Road travel at the posted speed limit of 35mph. Why? Because everyone who travels the road knows the Northfield police will ticket you, even if you are driving only a few miles per hour over the limit. The speed limit is consistently consequenced to the point where people invariably follow it. At home, with consistent consequences you will also increase your success rate and decrease your frustration.

Sometimes, even with consistent consequences, a child’s behavior does not improve. This can happen for a number of reasons. Seeking professional help under these circumstances is something to consider.

Q: Why do my children keep nagging me after I have told them “No”?

This, too, is a question about consistency and best answered starting with a question: Why is it that people throw quarters into the slot machines at the Hollywood Casino in Aurora? Because every time they insert a quarter they have a chance to hit the jackpot. Even if the machine has just paid out, hitting the jackpot with the next quarter is possible. That’s quite a reinforcement for continuing to throw quarters in. In behavioral terms, this type of reinforcement is called a variable-ratio reinforcement.

If your children are nagging you, there’s a pretty good chance that they see you as a slot machine. Each nag is a quarter. Think about it as you read this dialog between a father and child:

Child: Dad, can we go to McDonald’s?
    Father: No
Child: Dad, can we go to McDonald’s?
    Father: No
Child: Dad, can we go to McDonald’s?
    Father: No
Child: Dad, can we go to McDonald’s?
    Father: No
Child: Dad, can we go to McDonald’s?
    Father: Well, okay.

The child has learned that if he is persistent enough with his nagging, he will hit the jackpot. If Dad waits until the 10th time to say, “Well, okay” the next time, he reinforces it even more. The child never knows when he will hit the jackpot, so he continues to nag until he wears Dad down and Dad finally says, “okay.”

To make this type of behavior disappear, the reinforcement needs to stop. Once you say “No,” you should follow your answer unless you have a really good reason for changing your mind. (This also means that it might be better to wait and think before answering if you are prone to changing your mind.) Not following through, allowing your children to hit the jackpot, will only lead to more of the behavior in the future.