Dad Gets a Masters in Pavlov’s Theory

I haven’t attended any classes, read any textbooks or taken any exams, but I’m fairly certain that some fancy institution with vine-draped walls should bestow upon me a master’s degree in early childhood behavior.

Believe me, after spending five years at home with my two young sons, I’ve learned a few things about the behavior of children — a few mind-boggling things. Like whenever you tell a friend something about your kid, that child will behave in the exact opposite manner in front of the friend. Tell someone what a great singer your little guy is and he’ll decide to sing for that person exclusively in a shrill, annoying baby voice. Tell them what a great artist he is and he’ll start drawing random scribbles up and down his own arms. Wow. Brilliant stuff there, son.

At least there is a benefit to studying the behavior of my boys. I can now predict with reasonable accuracy the onset of crocodile tears, jokes with punch lines ending in the word “poop” and wild brotherly shouting matches. That should count for something, right? Why not that master’s degree?

Well, to really earn a master’s degree, I’ve been told that I need to pick a specific topic within the field of early childhood behavior and write a thesis. A quick search of the Internet led me to Sweet. This site provides a quick and easy way to produce your master’s thesis. Just fill in these four blanks: Thesis Title, Introduction, Empirical Evidence and Conclusion. I have the perfect topic, so here goes.

Thesis Title: Pavlov’s Call: A Case Study of Pavlovian Theory Applied to Boys Instead of Dogs Using Telephones Instead of a Bell

Introduction: Pavlovian experiments, for the uninitiated (like whoever is reviewing this for, are based on the work of Russian psychologist and physician Ivan Pavlov. In the 1890s, the good doctor was investigating the gastric function of dogs (yep, that’s really what it says on Wikipedia), when he noticed that the hounds tended to start drooling before the chow was even put in front of their snouts. So, he changed the focus of his research to conditioning and involuntary reflex actions.
Educated people know about this example: after being conditioned to associate a ringing bell or other stimulus with being fed, Pavlov’s dogs would salivate at the mere ringing of a bell, whether food was around or not.

For TV-watching, mouth-breathers like me, another example comes to mind: in a classic episode of “The Office,” Jim uses the Pavlovian method to train Dwight. Every time Jim reboots his computer, he offers Dwight an Altoid. It’s hilarious, trust me.

Anyhow, back to the matter at hand. It turns out that my boys exhibit Pavlovian behavior almost daily. Here’s how it works: every time the telephone rings (stimulus), both boys immediately go bazooty — singing, shouting, somersaulting, the whole bit (reflex action). They could be playing a quiet game of Chutes and Ladders together, be fully engrossed in a television program or even be asleep, but as soon as that phone rings and I go to answer it, a wild rumpus erupts in my living room.

Empirical Evidence: It’s one thing to have the rug rats make a colossal racket in the background when your mom calls. You can work around that. It’s another when you’re trying to conduct business.

Once, I was interviewing a woman over the telephone for a magazine article. We were in the middle of a very nice conversation when, all of the sudden, BA-DA-BA-DA-BA-DA-DA-DA!, a blast of marching band music nearly blew me off my chair. My 2-year-old had loaded a CD into the player by himself, turned it on, picked track number seven (Ohio State Fight Song) and turned it up as LOUD as it would go. Luckily, this woman was a mom and got a huge kick out of the interruption. It doesn’t always go that way, though.

Before a recent serious conference call, I set the 2-year-old up with a bowl of his favorite snacks and put his favorite video on TV. I figured this would buy me the 20 minutes of silence I needed. As soon as the phone rang at the appointed time, however, the boy heard the stimulus and lost all interest in anything except getting my attention. For 20 excruciating minutes, I fended the little devil off, covering the phone’s mouthpiece with my hand so the executives on the other end wouldn’t hear my son crying, “no, Daddy, you’re a poopypants!”

Of course, there is an interesting corollary to all of this. Hold the phone up to either of my sons’ faces and ask them to say hi to Grandma, and they’ll clam up tight. Neither likes to talk on the phone much yet. They just like to prevent me from doing so.

Conclusion: Ivan Pavlov, you’re a genius. I hope this application of your theory makes you proud.