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How Can Parents Use Operant Conditiong Principles With a Toddler? Operant Conditioning and Parenting Children

Updated on April 22, 2013

Parenting can be one of the most rewarding experiences life can offer. Yet it can also be one of the most painful and punishing. Bringing up a child involves so much investment of time, energy, love and nurturing, and parents often wonder if they are doing the right thing, especially during times of rebellion and rejection.

Parents strive to teach their children life skills, inculcate important moral values, shape characters... and on a day to day basis children are learning behaviors, attitudes, and thoughts towards certain behaviors from the important adults in their lives. Whether consciously, subconsciously, or unconsciously, parents demonstrate love with the hope that their children will grow up to be successful adults surrounded by loving family and friends.


There are tons of parenting strategies out there, some of them rather radical and other unconventional. Sadly, parenting can take on dark and ugly tones, but here I'd like to take a step back and adopt a light-hearted approach to tackle this serious subject of parenting.

This hub is my tribute to all you parents, where I marry classic psychology with the parenting experience. I hope this will provide a refreshing perspective to parents, children, and anyone who might read this.

One of the classic psychology concepts that form the staple diet of any psychology student is this concept of Operant Conditioning. In psychology, learning something new is marked by a modification of behavior and new neural connections in the brain. This is not confined to just academic learning of facts, but here learning refers to the broad spectrum of things. For example, appropriate social behavior, instilling good morals, learning to make wise choices... all these involve learning, and can incorporate the principles of operant conditioning.

Operant conditioning uses the system of punishment and rewards to encourage or discourage a particular behavior in an individual. As parents, we often give out overt and subtle signals of approval and disapproval to our children - through our verbal responses or non verval body language, whether we realize it or not.

In operant conditioning, when we encourage a certain behavior, we want to reinforce it. On the flipside, if we want to discourage it, we then want to punish it.

There are 4 methods that Operant Conditioning uses -
1. Positive Reinforcement.
This refers to 'adding' something to reward a behavior.

  • eg. giving compliments about the child's strengths to encourage more confident behavior.
  • eg. granting more TV time or video game time if the child takes the initiative to do homework without any reminders
  • eg. smiling when a child masters a hard word, puts in effort to achieve something
  • eg. hugging a child when the child tells the truth, or owns up instead of lying

2. Negative Reinforcement
This is 'subtracting' something to reward or encourage a behavior

  • eg. taking away criticism to encourage a child to try new activities
  • eg. removing distractions to encourage the child to concentrate on their homework
  • eg. withdrawing certain monetary incentives to encourage the child to adopt a more frugal lifestyle
  • eg. denying and refraining from serving dessert until the child finishes all the vegetables on his or her plate

3. Positive Punishment
This is 'adding' something to discourage a behavior

  • eg. giving a disapproving look when a child imitates bad speech
  • eg. installing a security program on the computer to limit the child's internet access
  • eg. putting the cookie jar on the top shelf after discovering the kid has been sneaking to it
  • eg. giving criticism/scolding/reprimand when a child repeatedly disobeys you

4. Negative Punishment
This is removing something to discourage a behavior

  • eg. ignoring the child or withdrawing attention when a child behaves inappropriately (eg. if child is whining to get attention)
  • eg. removing privileges if a child is caught behaving badly towards others
  • eg. shortening the time for a bedtime story because the child took too long to clear the toys
  • eg. disallowing the paydates for a few days because the child lied about finishing homework before playing

Operant conditioning works best when

  • Rewards or punishments are large (eg. it will have no impact to punish a child with reading shorter bed-time storybook if the child is inherently not interested in reading)
  • Reinforcements and punishments are administered soon after the behavior is identified. This increases the impact factor and is more effective than waiting some time before punishing or rewarding a particular behavior.

So parenting does put a lot of these principles of operant conditioning into action. In fact, I'd say that parents are probably one of the best masters of operant conditioning (although they might not be aware of this themselves). If you are a psychology student, I hope this helps to give you a real-life application of what you are learning, alongside a renewed admiration and appreciation for parents.

What are your thoughts and experiences? Please leave your comments below, I would love to hear from you!


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    • profile image

      Lyne 3 years ago

      I have a friend with a 3 yr old boy. The boy is smart, speaks well and appears to be well mannered but at night he just poops in his jammies or poops on the floor. She doesn't spank him. She tells him that what he did was wrong but he just keeps doing this. He also spins his head in a circle, runs in his room then comes back laughing. I think he just like making himself dizzy but I've been wondering lately if this is normal. I don't know much about her family history but I get the feeling that her family is not close. I was wondering if anyone has come across these issues or where she can go to try and get some answers.

    • profile image

      mommymarried2psych 4 years ago

      This article fails to mention that conditioning has harmful side affects. Conditioning is a selfish way for parents to get obedience and compliance. It is damaging to the child's psyche. Conditioning is the least effective way to get compliance and should be used wisely and sparingly. Use love and logic instead.

    • profile image

      Ivana 4 years ago

      Well now what if you want to start parenting this way after doing it a different way for almost the last 4!years and almost 2 with the other! I feel like the way I was raised is not working for my 3 year old at all! I hate to admit it but I am not very calm or controlled when I spank and it just doesn't seem to help anyway! The speaking calmly he just ignores and he starts talking back very badly when I stop popping him on the mouth for it. I need help! Pointers and comments appreciated please. Please don't judge me though, I didn't have a calm childhood with controlled parents and I am trying to build a better one for my family.

    • marion langley profile image

      marion langley 4 years ago from The Study

      well organized...reading through the examples I'm like, "yep, that's us!" My husband and I are only a few years into parenting but when I look back at how my parents did's all there and I expect I'll follow suit...for the most part and most the time. :-) Thanks for writing.

    • Charlotte B Plum profile image

      Charlotte B Plum 4 years ago

      Hi Karen,

      this article was written on june 8 2011. Sorry about this delay in reply, I hope you were able to cite it in time!

    • profile image

      Karen Baker 4 years ago

      Hi I would like to cite your article in my assignment and was wondering what the date of the article is when you wrote it.


    • profile image

      Anonymous 4 years ago

      1. Reinforcement can be used to discourage a behavior. You reinforce the positive opposite of the behavior you want to discourage. This allows punishment to be limited, and perhaps used only to discourage aggression.

      2. Disapproving looks/scolding/reprimands/criticisms tend to act a reinforces, not as punishment. Attention, even negative attention, is a reinforcer. Inadvertently reinforcing behavior in an attempt to discourage it is one of the worst parenting practices and its all too common.

      See the book "Kazdin Method" for more.

    • profile image

      kelleyward 6 years ago

      Very interesting article. I have always liked the idea of positive reinforcement and of course consistence is key in most relationships. Thanks for sharing..

    • Keeley Shea profile image

      Keeley Shea 6 years ago from Norwich, CT

      A very well written article. I agree with all points put forth. I have used many of these principles with my children and I think whichever way you go consistency is the key! Great hub!!!

    • thelyricwriter profile image

      Richard Ricky Hale 6 years ago from West Virginia

      Charlotte, very well said. I believe we do have to reinforce these. Our kids have to learn to be respectful and this is a great way to show that.

    • Charlotte B Plum profile image

      Charlotte B Plum 6 years ago

      Hey HennieN,

      Thanks for dropping by and checking out my hubs.

      Yeah sometimes we make kids do what they do not enjoy even though it is good for them - and it seems like punishment to them. As a parent coach you'd probably be able to think of much better examples for this topic!

    • HennieN profile image

      HennieN 6 years ago from South Africa

      I am not a pschycology student, but rather a parent coach. Very interesting hub. Very true also.

      Punishment could also be something positive. If my kid struggles to read, whenever I need to "punish" I can spent time with him reading a book for example.