Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Reinforcement? I'm positive.

I've been reading a book called "Don't Shoot the Dog".  The title, in and of itself, is probably good advice, even though there are times I'd like to ignore it.  But really, it's a book on training dogs, dophins, children, and other animals, through the use of positive reinforcement.

The level of detail in the book has been welcome as I try to figure out how to parent my new, prone-to-flight 15-year old son.  (Anything he construes as punishment, including vague descriptions of people being "mean" to him, tends to shut him down or make him run and/or hide).  Beyond the details, though, it's the general encouragement of the book to keep at that reward-and-praise approach, to try it again.  And again.  I'm the choir, and I don't mind the book preaching at me.

The main thing I learned from this round of reading is that positive reinforcement isn't about some vague and all-pervading cheerfulness.  It isn't about offering faint praise.  And it doesn't mean offering bribes in perpetuity.  Rather, it's about
    (a) a limited training phase in which the parent/owner/trainer is
    (b) figuring out a way to make the dog/dolphin/child feel good, and
    (c) doing that feel-good thing AT THE EXACT MOMENT when the good behavior happens.
Rewarding precisely the good behavior.

It takes brains.  It takes patience.  It takes timing.  It takes (says the woman who thought she had this, until she tried it) discipline.  Don't yell at the bad behavior.  Instead, catch the good behavior as it's happening, and reward the heck out of it.  Ease back on rewards as the subject (I mean, as my kid) gets the idea.

Positive reinforcement:  it works scary-well.  (Does it work?  Yes, I'm positive).

Here are three quick examples:

1)  A few months ago, I asked my newspaper carrier to deliver our newspaper with no plastic bag, a highly unusual request.  Nowadays, most of the time, my newspaper does indeed come naked.  But on days with rain threatening, the paper comes in plastic.  Darn.  I know another blogger who canceled her paper entirely so she wouldn't get plastic bags -- she "shot the dog".

But I don't want to cancel my paper.  Instead, I waited for a stretch of sunny days, and then left an effusive (but honest) thank you note in the paper box, telling Michael that he is an amazingly courteous carrier.  That he goes above and beyond (true).  That we hate plastic bags, and know it's a pain for him to leave them off, and we're glad he delivers our paper without them.   The day after he got that card, it rained.  And we got our newspaper, naked.  No bag.  First time that's happened.  Love it.

2)  N-son and C-son begged to be allowed to wash the car together.  Two boys, one hose.  I hesitated, but finally relented, with probably more-than-appropriate amounts of nagging about not wasting water, sharing the hose, not squirting the brother, etc.   After about 20 minutes, the car was clean (ish), and the boys were still not fighting [--> miracle! <--].  I came outside with two one-dollar coins, and told the boys they had earned these, not because they'd washed my car, but because they had achieved the UNimaginable, sharing the car-washing hose without fighting.

Both boys grinned their teen-age-boy-grins (delighted, but trying to hide it).  N-son immediately handed his dollar to C-son, saying "Here, brother, I want you to have this".  He'd learned the get-along-lesson all too well.  And -- get this! -- they haven't fought all week since then.  As I said before, [--> miracle! <--].

3) And another oldie-but-goodie trick technique of positive reinforcement:  seat belt races.  It's not an individual race; it's kids-versus-grownups.  In last decade, I only once had to tell N-son to buckle up.  In the last year, since J-son joined us, and in the month-plus since C-son moved in, I have not EVER had to tell any of the boys to put his seat-belt on.  Instead, N-son and J-son passed along the rules.  They egg one another on.  We get to the car and all three boys squeeze quickly into the back of the Prius, working together, saying "hurry-hurry-hurry!" to each other.  By they time I have the key in the ignition, they're all buckled in, shouting "We WON!".

And I say, "Oh DARN it!"  And I buckle up, and then I drive away.  With my boys gloating in the back seat, happy, and safe.

I won.  I'm positive.

1 comment:

  1. The seat belt story is positively adorable! I like the method of using thank-you notes to encourage people to change their habits, too.