The perils of positive reinforcement

I frequently receive email forwards or notice Facebook statuses from my elder relatives that refer to how much rougher and thus better things were when they were growing up. Things like, “When I was a kid the only video game we had was called GOING OUTSIDE!” Or, “Click ‘Like’ if you had one of these growing up!” and it will link to a picture of a beat-up station wagon or an alcoholic father.

I usually can’t roll my eyes hard enough when I come across these things because they’re really quite silly. Nostalgia can indeed cloud perception, and the things they pride themselves on were almost certainly luxuries by their parents’ standards. The implication is that we, and certainly our children, are going soft, and 30 years from now we’ll be a nation of fat, whiny, privileged brats who will be under China’s rule.

I don’t believe that to be the case. Look at me. I played video games as a kid and now I’m 34 and can almost change a tire. That said, these type of anecdotes are not entirely bereft of wisdom or merit, and if I ever find myself agreeing with a particular old school sentiment, it probably involves the rearing of children.

Case in point: our daughter. She is amazing and I love her, obviously, but she is a handful. “Handful” is a nicer way of saying “if you are not firm with her, and don’t follow through on promises/warnings, she will absolutely, positively walk all over you.”

It is truly astounding to witness how quickly a child inherently learns how to manipulate, and our daughter has nailed it already. If she had a resume—and she should have one because she needs a job—manipulation would be her greatest skill. (She is also proficient in iPhone 4.)

Our daughter will read a person’s personality and internally process the best way to use those characteristics to get what she wants. The best way typically involves her flipping the heck out until the other person relents. Unfortunately for her, her mother is an unnerving rock of I-don’t-think-so, and she has taught me well. Suffice it to say, our daughter’s shenanigans do not fly at home, and it is not unusual for us to casually go about our household duties amidst the anguished drone of a child getting the opposite of her way.

This is not the case in daycare/school, which has become cause for concern. It seems like every day I pick her up I am treated to some account about how she didn’t sleep, listen, play kindly, or all of the above. I’m like, “Okay, so what was her punishment?” And they’re like, “Gasp! We let her color while eating pancakes.” My wife recently picked her up with that same familiar feedback, and as the teacher was detailing the drama, our daughter was eating a bag of Cheese-Its as happy as could be. My wife, restraining herself, responded, “Okaaaaay … then why is she eating Cheese-Its?

School doesn’t “do” timeouts. They also don’t seem to withhold treats because of behavior. The school believes in “positive reinforcement,” which is nice in theory. It’s not so nice when our daughter is a hot mess because no one had the wherewithal to be firm with her. She is immune to positive reinforcement. If you try to positively reinforce her she’s like, “Pfft. This is my class now.”

Now I don’t know who to be upset with when I pick her up—our daughter or the school. Is this what regular school is like now, too? It makes me yearn for the good ol’ days when Catholic nuns would smack your hand with a ruler for answering incorrectly, and when positive reinforcement meant backup troops IN VIETNAM. I experienced neither—and thank God because I’d be scarred for life—but still. I think we’ve gone soft.

                                              HAHAHAHAHAHA ... SO TRUE, SO TRUE!

Note: This column appears in the 10/4 issue of The Glendale Star and the 10/5 issue of the Peoria Times.


Anonymous said…
Appropriate positive reinforcement allows for punishment (consequences), and does not involve overindulgence. Whatever your daughter is experiencing may be some misconstrued version of reinforcement; but let's not trash positive reinforcement as a theory. It's not soft, it's effective and data driven.