Ages & Stages: 6-10: Alternatives to Nagging

In a recent New York Times article titled “What Shamu Taught Me About A Happy Marriage,” Amy Sutherland shares what she has learned from animal trainers in California while researching a book she is writing. “The central lesson I learned from exotic animal trainers is that I should reward behavior I like and ignore behavior I don’t. After all, you don’t get a sea lion to balance a ball on the end of its nose by nagging.” On returning home she tried out that lesson and learned, “The same goes for the American husband.”

Actually, this sounds like a Super Nanny strategy to me. When I teach I’ve learned that nagging the clowning kid in my classroom only makes her take her performance up a notch. Nagging my kids at home to pick up their socks and put them in the laundry basket gets no results except to raise my blood pressure. My nagging gives a lot of attention to a habit I don’t like. Here are the three key non-nagging ideas the exotic animal trainers use:

Animal trainers use what they call “approximations,” which is rewarding the small steps toward learning a whole new behavior. They tell us you can’t expect a baboon to learn to flip on command in one session. I don’t expect my kids to put their socks in the laundry basket by telling them once. However, if I use approximations — giving them attention and praise each time they put even one sock in the basket — they should develop the habit I want.

The baboon does not learn to flip by being reprimanded. Mistakenly, many parents expect their children to achieve perfection through correction. However, if a parent wants a child to learn a new habit, “approximations” produce results faster and more easily than scolding.

Incompatible Behavior
In our day-care center, teen mother René has a 17-month-old biter. When René sees her daughter open her mouth she says, “Kiss, Kayla, kiss!” Kayla immediately closes her mouth and places a smack on whatever she was about to sink her teeth into. Without realizing it, René is teaching what the trainers call an “incompatible behavior.” You can’t kiss and bite at the same time. Trainers, spouses and parents can all use this technique to change habits they don’t like.

For example, adults who want to quit smoking find it helpful to engage in activities during which they can’t smoke. The trainer who wants the African Cranes to stop landing on his shoulders teaches them to land on mats. The mom whose kid is standing on the table to get attention while she is trying to clean house, gives the child a cloth and teaches him to dust, a useful incompatible behavior.

Least Reinforcing Syndrome
A dolphin trainer introduced Sutherland to least reinforcing syndrome (LRS). “When a dolphin does something wrong, the trainer doesn’t respond in any way. He stands still for a few beats, careful not to look at the dolphin, and then returns to work. The idea is that any response, positive or negative, fuels a behavior.” I think we often encourage (reinforce) behaviors we don’t like without realizing it.

For instance. It is homework time. Michael sits at the kitchen table tapping his pencil. Grandmother, who is fixing dinner, says, “Mikey, stop that.” Mikey obliges by tapping ever so lightly.
“That’s enough! Get busy with your homework,” responds Grandmother.
“You can’t even hear it,” Mikey retorts.
“Yes, I can and it drives me crazy.”
This response just fuels Mike’s pencil tapping because he is getting what he’s looking for: attention.

If Grandma simply did not respond and continued her dinner preparation, then after a pause inquired as to what his homework was tonight, she would be using LRS.
Unintentionally, we encourage (reinforce) behaviors we don’t want by giving them attention. So, like the dolphin trainer, we are better off not responding to what kids do wrong.

The trainers’ motto is “It’s never the animal’s fault.” After reading Sutherland’s article I have tried to adopt this motto. Instead of blaming children for actions I don’t like, I am trying to see if I am accidentally fueling this action with my attention. Using approximations, more socks are getting into the basket.

My favorite use of incompatible behavior is to teach the annoying child how to help me clean house, empty the dishwasher or fix dinner. This is fun! Sutherland seems to be right: “Reward the behavior I like and ignore the behavior I don’t” is the simplest rule.

Eleanor Wolf has taught and worked with teenagers, their babies and their parents for more than 15 years.