Why Won’t My Child Just Do As I Say?

By: Elanor Neff, M.S., BCBA and CSERV Clinician

  • “I just want my child to behave because they should”

  • “Why do they need something every time they do something?”

  • “I shouldn’t have to bribe them”

  • “Why do I have to make a deal with them?”

Have you heard these statements? Have you said these statements? As Behavior Analysts we are taught that reinforcement increases the likelihood that behavior will occur and we should reinforce the “good stuff”. But what happens when we misuse the Premack Principle (also known as “Grandma’s Law” when she would state something along the lines of, “First, eat your broccoli then you can have dessert”). Well we end up with kids “demanding” a reinforcer, parents confusing bribery with reinforcement, and a flawed intervention. Here are a few suggestions to prevent this from happening:

  1. “Grandma’s Law” is great and is totally ok to use. BUT if you use it, then make sure you use it BEFORE problem behavior starts. If problem behavior is already happening (the child is currently yelling and screaming) and you offer up this statement “Put your shoes on and you can have a sticker”, you are now negotiating and have misused the strategy. 

  2. Pay attention to your child when he does something great. Seems obvious, right? Well a lot of times we tend to give our attention when our child does something wrong (e.g., “Don’t bang on the TV”). When you see her doing something that you wish she would do instead of banging on the TV reward them for that (“I love how you are playing with your toys”).

  3. Children learn better through consequences. Yes, rules are good, but sometimes it is even better for things to happen rather than talking about it. What does this look like? If you are worried that you are over-using or misusing Grandma’s law, try just acting it out rather than talking about it. For example, if you want to give your kid a sticker when he puts on his shoes, then when he puts on his shoes give him a sticker; if he does not put on his shoes don’t give him a sticker. BUT don’t SAY this rule out loud. Just do it when you see it. Don’t worry, at some point your kid will put his shoes on…kids learn better through actual consequences rather than promises/threats.

  4. Rewards/reinforcers do not have to be extravagant or costly. Praise goes a long ways especially if you feel like you are constantly reprimanding your kid.  Be specific with your praise, “Yeah you put on your shoes! Amazing!” is better than “Great job”. Tell her exactly what she did right!

  5. Be consistent. Did you promise to give the sticker if they put the shoe on? If they put the shoe on, then give the sticker. Don’t bet on your child “forgetting”. Empty promises function the same as empty threats…not very effective.

Elanor Neff will be providing a webinar on the topic of caregiving participating in ABA therapy on Tuesday, 2/21 at 8:00 EST.  To register please click here. 

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