What is Operant Conditioning?

What is Operant Conditioning?
As the mother of boys, you may have discovered a little secret: yelling at them doesn’t really work very well. In fact, the more you yell, the more they tune you out. Even worse, they don’t seem to pay much attention to you when you try to correct their behavior. Slowly you come to realize that you have one of two choices: either let your sons do whatever they want and start counting down the days until they leave home or find a different way to get their attention.

Presumably, you don’t find the idea of abandoning your parenting responsibilities very palatable; thus, finding a new way of getting your son’s attention is necessary. Enter operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is a type of learning, developed primarily by psychologist B.F. Skinner, which uses consequences to modify someone’s behavior. As applied to children, a parent can use operant conditioning to teach a child that positive behavior will be rewarded with praise, while negative behavior will be met either with punishment or, often more effectively, with no reaction at all.

Often boys act out in order to gain their parents’ attention. Unfortunately, this acting out often takes an inappropriate form. For example, a boy who knows he is not allowed to throw a ball inside the house may start out by tossing a football from hand to hand. He realizes what he is doing and gives Mom a sidelong glance waiting for her to tell him to stop. Pre-operant conditioning, Mom would tell him to put the ball away. If she is lucky, her son is not the button-pushing type and does just that. If she has the kind of son many moms do, he stops for a second before starting again. After a few cycles of this routine, Mom loses her temper and yells at him to stop, possibly also tacking on a punishment. In a way most mothers can’t possibly hope to understand, the son has won. Enter operant conditioning.

When a mom is parenting under operant conditioning, she completely ignores her son tossing the ball, even if doing so is against house rules. It is highly likely that her son, in an effort to gain her attention, will get more and more aggressive with the ball. Unless another child or some part of the house is in imminent danger, though, Mom should ignore him. When he (eventually) realizes that he can’t get a rise out of his mother, he will stop. In this way, no reaction, over time, ends up being far more effective than a negative reaction.

The flip side of operant conditioning is the positive reaction. Any time your son does something right, praise him to the hilt. If he has a habit of taking his time getting to the dinner table, then make sure you praise him when he gets there quickly. Deprived of your negative attention, he will be very eager for opportunities for your positive attention.

There are as many parenting techniques as there are boys, and operant conditioning is just one more to add to your arsenal. If you have the kind of son who loves to push your buttons and who doesn’t respond well to punishment (i.e., you haven’t really been able to find his “currency”), operant conditioning may just be the thing for you to try.

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