Post No.: 0196
We learnt in Post No.: 0189 that we should give attention to and reward a desired behaviour far more than give attention to and punish an undesired behaviour. And now we can elaborate on this to say that we should ideally give more attention to and reward a good effort rather than a good outcome. This is because sometimes good outcomes or results come not through someone doing the right things but through good luck, cheating or what other people contributed, and bad outcomes or results can come not though someone doing anything wrong or failing to apply enough effort but through bad luck or what other people did.
So we should praise good efforts, good decision making, good planning or organisation, good focus or concentration, good commitment, good intentions, good teamwork and the like, and not so much results, talents or abilities. In the long run, and in general, if people keep doing the right things then they’ll overall or eventually achieve the right results. Woof!
Fostering a ‘growth mindset’ involves praising effort and persistence so that children understand that abilities can be built and improved over time, even if they cannot do something right now. Whereas instilling a ‘fixed mindset’ involves praising intelligence or another kind of trait as if people either have it or they don’t. A growth mindset produces better outcomes because children understand the link between the time and effort put into something and the result; and that investing this time and effort into an endeavour will be worth it in the long run. A fixed mindset will lead to a lack of desire to improve oneself because one will believe that qualities and abilities cannot be improved; and so a typical response is quitting if one cannot do something, thus denying oneself a learning and growth opportunity.
Therefore recognise how hard your child must have studied, how well your child organised their time, how well your child must have performed under pressure, how well your child didn’t give up and how your child trained hard and worked well with others. This encourages and reinforces the appliance of effort, resilience and persistence in the face of challenges and failure, and maybe not just for the task at hand but other future furry tasks too.
Praising intelligence rather than effort may also motivate a child to cheat in order to maintain their reputation of being intelligent, since the result will be what matters most for getting praised or otherwise rewarded.
Some argue that we should praise a child’s self-efficacy (competency) and not their self-esteem (self-worth) – this is because self-worth should be something that is intrinsic rather than dependent on what other people think or say. We should also praise them only whenever they do something desirable too otherwise the effect of praise will become devalued, diluted and somewhat meaningless (e.g. don’t just praise a child spontaneously whenever you feel like it).
Encouraging an internal locus of control (that things are within one’s control rather than outside of it) and fostering experiences of successfully exercising control and improving one’s situation, also helps children to cope better and feel less helpless – with the caveat that it is something that can be reasonably controlled and changed by them (e.g. they shouldn’t beat themselves up over the weather, although they could’ve possibly planned better for the uncertain weather). So praise such exhibitions of good character (e.g. “You showed amazing perseverance in that game.”)
Try to avoid placing generalised labels on children – particularly negative ones i.e. criticise the bad behaviour instead (e.g. say, “What you said to your sister was wrong” rather than, “You are a bad boy”). Like praising good behaviours rather than good results, we should criticise bad behaviours rather than bad results; and we should neither label children with fixed positive traits nor, in particular, fixed negative traits.
Now although ignoring an undesired behaviour will generally make that behaviour extinct (decrease in frequency), such as ignoring bullies – in many scenarios, one cannot just ignore undesired behaviours and expect them to cease. Sometimes being ignored or left alone is not really seen as a punishment so a problematic behaviour could still persist, and sometimes it’s dangerous to ignore an undesired behaviour too. So you must first make explicitly clear what you find undesirable and why you will not or cannot entertain that behaviour. Without this explicit explanation beforehand, the ignoring response will be read confusingly or ambiguously (e.g. it could possibly be read as ‘am I simply not pushing hard enough with this (ill) behaviour to get your attention?’) or be read as pure neglect. So if we are to ignore or punish people when they do something undesirable then we must make sure we’ve made it explicitly clear why, and what it is that you want them to do, beforehand i.e. the rules, expectations and consequences all must be stated and understood beforehand, not dealt out ad-hoc afterwards; otherwise it’ll cause confusion and/or resentment. You must also crucially explain what you’d like them to do instead. It’s easy to tell someone what not to do – but what should they do instead?
‘Continuous reinforcement’ involves consistently rewarding a desired behaviour every single time – but apart from being impractical, children may come to see a behaviour as being worthwhile doing only if it’s (likely to be) rewarded, hence they’ll fail to eventually learn to wish to perform that behaviour intrinsically, especially when they’re older or otherwise on their own. It’s therefore better to set up rewards and behaviours that you view as being good in and of themselves (e.g. rewarding reading with special quality time spent with your child by reading together, or taking trips together to the library or bookstore, or making a plan to see the movie after the child has finished reading the book). You don’t want to, for example, reward children with sweets or anything extrinsic for being physically active – it’s far better to simply make those physically active moments enjoyable in and of themselves (e.g. by playing for fun rather than with any pressure of winning or losing). This will encourage them to more likely maintain regular physical activity habits when they’re adults, which will be good for their long-term health.
‘Fixed reinforcement’ involves rewards being given only after a fixed amount of time (fixed interval) or after a fixed number of repetitions of a desired behaviour (fixed ratio) – but the problem with these strategies is that children will learn to perhaps wait until the end of the day to perform a desired behaviour just once, knowing that they’ll still get the reward this way with this minimum effort, or they’ll just do it exactly 10 times and no more after they’ve received the reward! A variable interval fares only a little better than a fixed interval since the rewards will seem to come willy-nilly at random times regardless of how many times a child performs a behaviour.
By far the best strategy for rewards is to use a variable ratio schedule, where the child gets rewarded based on repeating a behaviour but the number of times they need to do so is random each time. Designers of casino slot machines understand human psychology in order to extract the most money from their patrons – and they use this type of ‘variable reinforcement’ schedule too!
So the key to rewards is to not be quite so consistent – being slightly random may be the best way to encourage desired behaviours, and this technique comes furly naturally to most of us (e.g. most of us don’t say, “Thank you” literally every single time another person does something for them within a given situation).
But variable reinforcement schedules can be bad when it comes to punishing undesired behaviours, where absolute consistency is better – with an undesired behaviour, we ideally want an extinction of that behaviour by completely cutting off all rewards for it. For instance, if you give in to empty whining then it’ll only become more frequent in the future, but worse is to only give in sometimes (to resist most of the time but then in a ‘moment of weakness’ give in to the whining just to get a moment of peace) – and worst of all is to first resist the whining but only give in when it goes on and on or escalates louder, which is effectively teaching your child that only the most persistent and loudest whining will get them what they want! So being as perfectly consistent as possible in not reinforcing an undesired behaviour, and teaching your child to replace whining with other better modes of request (e.g. by asking politely and being patient), is the best way to extinguish undesired behaviours. After all, only sometimes punishing an undesired behaviour is to sometimes reward or condone that undesired behaviour, which is the variable reinforcement schedule for encouraging a behaviour.
Parenting isn’t easy but through learning about the subject rather than going in blind, your stress levels will reduce. Then it’s just about remembering to put it all into practice despite our fuzzy emotions during the heat of the moment – for instance, remembering not to give more attention to your misbehaving daughter than your well-behaving son, or being strong and thinking about what behaviour you’re reinforcing for the long-term rather than satisfying your own immediate and temporary gratification (moment of peace) by not rewarding your 5-year old kid with your company for crying every time you leave his/her bedroom when you want him/her to learn to sleep on his/her own (you want to break the conditioned association of ‘crying means you’ll come’ – you certainly don’t want to only come when the cries get loud because the child will then learn that ‘crying until the neighbours complain means you’ll come!’) Identify the cause-and-effect relationships of your own behaviours (e.g. you cave in after receiving sustained pressure (cause) then your child gets some sweets (effect)) because that’s what children are intuitively doing to repeat and reinforce whatever behaviours get them whatever they want.
So I guess, if you’re young, Furrywisepuppy has got to say that it was a smart decision and a good effort from you for reading this post to the end!