“I don’t care if you go to school naked!”

dontshootthedogKaren Pryor, in her book “Don’t Shoot the Dog,” presents the principles of reinforcement. Pryor, an animal trainer, explains that by becoming attuned to these methods and understanding which to use and when to use them, we can reinforce (i.e. train) almost any behavior. My undergraduate degree is in Psychology, so I’m no stranger to Skinner, positive and negative reinforcement, chaining and shaping, etc. But it has been a long time since college, so this book was definitely a good refresher.

Pryor explains how this can be used not only on animals, but in everyday situations in our lives – at home, the office, etc. I know that I’ve definitely – out of frustration, exhaustion, or whatever – reinforced some undesirable behaviors and I don’t always stop and think about the principles of reinforcement.

So, I decided to give Pryor’s suggestions a try. Over the course of a few weeks, I wanted to see if I could change some behaviors in my life….

Experiment #1 – Kids not cleaning up 

There are toys all over my family room. My husband and I mostly end up nagging the kids to clean up. Sometimes they do – usually they don’t – but everyone ends up pissed off. So, I decided to try something that incorporated some of the principles that Pryor describes by rewarding the behavior I wanted and changing the motivation. I guess the current motivation for them to actually clean up their toys was to just get us to stop yelling at them! So, we played a game where we saw how many toys they could put away in 20 minutes and then they picked something that we could do together for 10 minutes. This would continue until all the toys were away and then they could pick a TV show to watch. I had to make sure to have the TV off until the end (it’s usually on all the time at our house) to make the TV watching at the end mean more and to avoid them getting distracted. When I first presented it, they seemed excited and tried really hard to put the toys away really quickly. We set a timer, and they liked hearing it go off. This worked well for a few days. Then, on Saturday afternoon room was fairly clean and my two year old daughter exclaimed “Time to clean up! Set the timer!” and proceeded to dump a bunch of her toys out onto the floor. Pryor warned that things like this could happen. Overall though, SUCCESS!

Experiment #2 – Nagging Mother-In-Law (I hope my husband doesn’t read this) 

My mother-in-law enjoys arguing and sometimes tries to draw me into a fight. Sometimes it’s subtle, like saying “My doctor said I really need to get a flu shot” because she knows I think they are dangerous. Other times it’s more obvious, like saying “I really hate your nail polish” or “you shouldn’t wear that to work.” Sometimes it’s downright ridiculous, like saying that a town that is west of where we live is actually east. But, I usually take the bait. Pryor talks about a similar experience with her own mother. I realize that when I argue she isn’t listening to my reasoning and that I can say anything in the world – I can have an airtight research-based perfectly-worded and presented comeback – and it’s won’t matter. It’s about getting me riled up, and therefore, there is no way I can “win.” So, I decided to follow Pryor’s example and try to extinguish the behavior. Whenever she tried to get me going, I would just agree with her or say something neutral (“I guess you need to listen to your doctor.” or “Thank you for offering your insight.” or “I guess we should look at a map – I could be wrong.”). In the beginning, she tried to start drama over it. She told people I was mad at her. She told my husband that I was barely speaking to her. I said that I wasn’t doing anything – that I was specifically trying not to get her angry. Admittedly, this felt a little passive aggressive (which I hate – but that’s a whole other story). But then she started being really nice to me. She even made a point to ask me how I was doing, to say that it must be hard to be so busy and other things like that. I don’t know if will last, but I will enjoy it while I have it. Result – SUCCESS!

Experiment #3 – Always running late 

The most difficult behavior to change may be our own, but I’m going to give it a shot. Like Pryor, the main reason that I’m always running late is that I’m very busy. So, I’m always trying to squeeze in one more thing and I often run out of time. Pryor resolved this by simply making being on time her main priority. Sounds simple enough… so, I decided that I’m not going to be late anymore. After yoga this weekend, I had scheduled a pedicure and then I needed to go food shopping at two different places and then go to my cousin’s house to borrow a suitcase and then pick my son up from therapy. While my toes were drying it started snowing and I realized I could not do everything I planned and still be on time to get my son. I only went to one supermarket, but I was still able to multi-task and get some work done at the salon that freed up time later in the week to get the rest of the stuff done. And I was on time to get him. So far, so good. Then I decided to be on-time for work. I usually end up working late, but I am never there on time. After I got my son on the bus, I didn’t have my morning coffee and promptly got ready instead. I warmed up the car, got my daughter ready and we were out the door – and then she pooped. We went inside and I changed her diaper and she then decided that she didn’t like her pants. She only wanted pink pants (which were in the wash). After the wardrobe change and tantrum, I ended up being about 20 minutes late to work (which is a little better than usual). Result – inconclusive. I need to work on this more. There are other factors (i.e. other people) involved than just my motivation and I need to work on positive reinforcement for others as well as myself to make this one work.

Overall, behavioral training methods work and Pryor gives good easy-to-follow examples. I just have to stop and think about each situation, the behavior involved, what is being reinforced, and the best way to achieve the desired behavior before resorting to yelling or nagging or crying. Because even while I was conscious of positive reinforcement during these experiments, I might have said (yelled) something like “I don’t care if you go to school naked!” 


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