Taking a Psychology Lesson From Our Kids

Care bear costumeOur kids are novice humans. We’ve been around the block like 30 times, and the only block they know is for building towers. Yet somehow they’re experts at manipulating us to get what they want. The worst part is, we encourage it, without knowing it.

Consider this common scenario involving a dad and his 3-year-old at the playground:

Kid, in his most dramatic whiny voice: Dad, can I go to Aladdin’s house for lunch? Please, please?!

Dad: Hmm… probably not today, since lunch was 6 hours ago and we’ve already had dinner.

[Kid produces an amazing fit of screaming and thrashing]

Dad: Buddy, I know you’re sad, but it’s not OK to act like that.

[Kid goes full bore into hypertantrum mode, which resembles a cross between the Tasmanian devil and Jack-Jack from the Incredibles]

Dad, embarrassed and worried his kid is going to pop a blood vessel and permanently damage vocal chords: Hey, if you calm down, maybe Aladdin can come hiking with us tomorrow. Otherwise, we’re going home right now.

Phew – disaster averted. Nice job dad!

What have we done?

Little kids are still learning to manage their emotions, so we should reward them when they’re able to calm themselves, right?

The problem is, in these situations we aren’t teaching our kids to manage their emotions. Instead, we’re teaching them to utilize their emotions to get what they want. Our kids have trained us to give them something, to reward them, in exchange for immediate cessation of all sobbing, whining, tantrums, and general misbehaving.

It seems like the hiking trip is a reward for potentially good behavior – that would be positive reinforcement of something we want our kid to do, manage their emotions.

But in this case the kid is in charge – they started the exchange by punishing us, with something that can induce a headache and cause grouchy-dad syndrome, while implicitly offering to stop under certain conditions. That’s negative reinforcement – taking away something bad so as to reward and encourage someone’s behavior.

What should we do?

In my opinion, the tantrum itself needs to have consequences, not the ending of the tantrum. If they freak out while doing something fun, all the fun should end. Ideally, we’ll have told them ahead of time what the conditions are for being at the playground or on the campout.

Sometimes they forget, and maybe we give them a second chance. Not a big deal. But we shouldn’t offer special rewards to get them to stop doing something wrong.