Can You Train Your Kid like Your Dog?


animal-researchDid you know that many of our most tried and true parenting techniques — timeouts and positive reinforcement, for two — are  actually based  in animal research? I didn’t. But both are rooted in the science of operant conditioning which became prevalent in the early 20th century.

Operant conditioning is essentially the idea that you can encourage some behaviors and discourage others by using positive or negative reinforcement. If you took basic psych in college, you’ve heard of BF Skinner and his conditioning chamber aka “Skinner box”, some variation of which is still used in much psychological research. And probably had the same reaction I did — how cruel! But in fact, “negative reinforcement” doesn’t necessarily mean punishment, it can mean the removal of something — like when you put up an umbrella when it starts to rain. Or when you put a kid in timeout, thus removing whatever stimulus is making him respond in a less than ideal way.

According to the authors of this Slate article, many scientists don’t like to draw the animal behavior parallels, because parents don’t like to hear it. After all, who likes to hear your unique, complex, fascinating child be compared to a pigeon in terms of teaching them behavior? I don’t. But this story details the many ways in which basic animal research on behavior translates directly to many parenting techniques. And when I think about it, I do use similar techniques on my dog and my kid sometimes (“Good dog not climbing on the couch!” and  “Good job at keeping your hands to yourself, sweetie!”).

While I am not about to put my kid into an air crib, it’s still intriguing to learn about the parallels.